The User Experience of Building a Bear

I can’t remember a more jarring lapse in a customer experience than that which my family experienced this morning.  It all started with a fuzzy blue bear.

The Setup

My wife and I took my daughter to a build-your-own-teddy-bear establishment.  To a father resigned to spending coin on a toy that will be loved intensely and then put in a toybox, the teddy-bear building process is amusing:

  1. select a skinned bear, rabbit or other animal carcass
  2. stick a blower into it’s rear orifice and fill with cotton,
  3. complain about all the ridiculous clothes, furniture, and other accessories your child will want to buy,
  4. suck it up and pay,
  5. receive hugs and kisses from daughter.

The company, of course, has a much friendlier description of the process.

From buildabear.com: The process for building your own bear.

While the bear was being stuffed in a very uncomfortable place, I thought to myself what a great job the company had done making customer experience into a profitable business.  They’re giving my daughter more than a bear; they create an engaging process to build a bear, but also to have the child establish a relationship with the bear before they even leave the store!  The employees are critical to this.  At every step they help the child personalize the bear, bring it to life in their eyes, and make the bear-building experience unique and memorable.  It works.  My daughter has dozens of stuffed animals, but she knows which ones are Build-A-Bears, and she remembers where, when, and with whom she got each of them.  Because they had put together a fun, well designed experience, I kept my fatherly grumbling and immature comments on bear stuffing to a minimum.

The UX Fail

The experience started to break down when we got to the ‘Name Me’ step, where you create a personalized Birth Certificate.  You’re supposed to scan the bear’s bar code, but of course the scanner didn’t work so we had to type in the numbers.  I quietly laughed at the obviously 20-30 year old PC they had hidden inside a decorative wooden box, and sighed when my daughter tried to touch the icons on the screen, or reach for a nonexistent mouse.

I really started to get upset when I realized that this step was designed to get marketing information…name, dob, sign up for a newsletter including email address!  We’re trying to have fun family activity, and here comes the marketers in the middle of our family fun!  My four year old is sitting at the keyboard, painstakingly trying to enter all the information, trying to get her bear’s Birth Certificate.  Everything up to this point she’s been able to do completely on her own…and the build-a-bear board room broke the illusion right here.

To be fair, every business needs to have accurate, detailed information about their customers.  And as a user experience designer, I understand the need to balance customer-focused experiences with business needs.  I can almost hear the meeting in which someone presented the flowchart and said, “we’ll ask for marketing information HERE…”  They generally did a good job of  balancing the customer experience with opportunities to upgrade, upsell, buy add-ons.  But everything, except for the Name Me marketing survey, focused on the core activity; it centered on the experience of building and personalizing a stuffed animal.

Think Outside the Beige Box

As user experience designers, it is our job to help businesses think outside their own needs and goals.  It is not realistic to say, “get rid of the marketing survey.”  But the information could be captured without hijacking the core experience.  Here are a couple things they might think about doing to make the Name Me step more engaging:

Use a graphical, touchscreen interface.

This is a no brainer.  I know those beige boxes are super cheap, and you paid someone good money to write that Birth Certificate program for you 12 years ago.  But today’s kids don’t understand your huge computer and clicky-clackety keyboard.  They are daily iPhone or iPad users.  They are inundated with extremely responsive multi-touch interfaces, and high resolution graphics.  You can make this process easier and faster (or, increase customer satisfaction and loyalty, and increase customer throughput and sales rates) with a modern, touch user interface.  Do you really need the standard web month-date-year dropdowns?  Give her a bunch of big buttons with big numbers to press.

If that’s too expensive, just get a decent computer — remove the decorative box

The problem here is that you’ve now made the customer have to learn a completely new and foreign user-interface, which is much more restrictive that what they already use daily.  My daughter is 4.  She has a complete working knowledge of how to use the family laptop: she can log into her account, fire up a web browser, turn on Netflix to watch her favorite shows.  She knows she can type words into the ‘G’ and get the answers she wants.  She knows that if she can’t touch the screen, she can use the mouse to move the cursor, and click on things to make them do something.  All of this knowledge and accumulated experience was useless on your computers because you tried to create a ‘simpler’ interface.  If you can’t go touch, just give her a web browser and a mouse and be done with it.

Make the process conditional

I’m sort of ok with asking my daughter for her name — it is printed on the bear’s birth certificate (this bear belongs to…) so at least it’s part of the experience.  Do you really need my daughter’s exact birthdate?  Just ask her how old she is (she’ll tell you to 2 significant figures).  If the respondent says they’re under 13, don’t ask them for an email address, or to sign up for a newsletter.  Instead, ask me for my information when I get up to the checkout counter (after all, I have the checkbook).  Give me a reason to friend you on Facebook, where you can get all this information and more.

Make the process part of your mobile app

Nice to see you have a mobile app.  Why don’t you do some of this marketing stuff there.  Connect my account with all my bear purchases.  Give me Bear Bills for providing my real world identity information.

They have job openings for both an interactive user experience designer and a senior database marketer positions.  Clearly, they know they need to improve in these areas.  I wish you luck in filling these positions, and making things better!