Case study: There must be better ways to Build-A-Bear

Disclaimer: I don’t work for Build-A-Bear Workshop, Inc. I am a User Experience Designer who recently accompanied my wife’s sister-in-law and two daughters, aged 6 and 8, to a local Workshop.

During my hour-long visit, there were several moments where I thought, “there must be a better way”. I explore those in this story.


First, I have a few assumptions based on what I saw

  1. Build-A-Bear’s customer and user are two different people: parents and children, respectively
  2. Parents’ primary concerns are: care, comfort (of their children) and cost
  3. Children's primary concerns are: cuteness, correct choices, and collection (starting one or adding to one)
  4. Build-A-Bear’s primary concern is to seek control and avoid chaos: of the crowds, of the customers (parents) and of the users (children)

Using the ‘Job To Be Done’ model, some examples

As a parent, I want my child to engage in a social, interactive experience that will instill wholesome values and help him/her learn to care for another. I ‘hire’ Build-A-Bear to do that job for my child.

As a child, I want to show that I am not a child by proving I can give life to something and raise it on my own. I ‘hire’ Build-A-Bear to do that job for me.

Other examples jobs from the child’s perspective include:

  • Express myself
  • Explore my creativity
  • Choose my first pet
  • Make a new friend

User story map for the Build-A-Bear Workshop

  1. Choose me: Consider the variety of Bears and Furry Friends
  2. Stuff me: Put stuffing in your bear (optionally include a smell)
  3. Fluff me: Fluff your stuffed animal
  4. Dress me: Choose furniture, clothing, and/or accessories for your bear
  5. Name me: Fill out the bear’s information on the computer
  6. Take me home: Buy the bear

Brief notes for each activity listed above

All descriptions come from this educational WikiHow Build-A-Bear page

Choose me

Consider the variety of Bears and Furry Friends. These also include bunnies, dogs and cats, zoo animals, wild furry friends, exclusive animals and more. Find the one that’s best for you or another. Check the price and see if it’s affordable in your opinion.

Stuff me

Put stuffing in your bear. If there is a line, wait in it. There should be a person waiting. He/she will ask you to step on the pedal while the person will stuff the bear. Once finished, grab a heart and place it inside the bear. The person will string the back together completely.

  • Optionally, you can pick out a sound before you string it completely. Go to the sound station, and push the buttons to hear the different sounds. Then search for the drawer with the sound number, and pick a sound device up. Hand it to the assistant when the bear is stuffed.

Fluff me

Fluff your stuffed animal. Take it to a fluffing table. Pick up a brush, and push the peddle under it. This will blow air out. Comb and fluff your bear gently and neatly.

Dress me

Choose furniture, clothing, and/or accessories for your bear. There are many to choose. For clothes and accessories, go to the dressing station and dress it up. Make sure it’s in good condition, and fits well on the bear.

Name me

Fill out the bear’s information on the computer. Follow what the computer says. Name the bear, and fill out your personal information, such as your address and phone number.

Take me home

Purchase the bear. Needless to say, purchase the stuffed animal and/or clothes, accessories, or furniture. The clerk will hand you a birth certificate of the bear’s information you just input in the computer.

  • Using the birth certificate, you are able to play online.

Before exploring each step in greater detail…

  • As stated at the start, the point of all this is to consider ways in which the Workshop experience could be improved — for both parents and children, and therefore the company
  • I believe that each step listed above could benefit from specific innovations — I define innovation loosely as ‘bringing something used to great effect in another industry…to yours’

Ultimately, each innovation referenced in the next section serves one or all of these goals:

  1. Empower children to be in near-full control of their own experience
  2. Free parents from the stresses of cost, harm (to their children, to other children, or to the Workshop) and disappointment
  3. Remove — or at least significantly reduce — any perceived feelings of ‘waiting’, ‘not having enough time for X’, FOMO (a.k.a. ‘fear of missing out’) and ‘clustering’ (in other words, keep crowds controlled)

What follows is a more detailed exploration of each step in the parent and child’s experience with proposed improvements

Step 1: Choose me

Psychology deep-dive

  • Kids may experience several emotions due to the number of choices of Bears or Furry Friends: excitement, stress, confusion, etc.
  • Parents seem focused on walking between two extremes: help their child find a Bear they love while avoiding higher-priced Bears as they foresee an ever-growing price tag
  • As stated earlier, kids may pick a Bear as a form of self-expression or self-reflection, as a way to complete their collection, as a way to compensate for a lack of pet or sibling, or as a way to anthropomorphize a character from their favorite movie

Ways to improve

Ideally, children would experience this step with little or no help from their parents. There’s a lot to consider in making this change. I call out major obstacles below.

  1. The Bears presented to kids must be more automated in some parts, and more accessible in others. For example: currently, bears don’t appear to be organized by price, so parents must police their children if they see them grab Bears that are above their budget limit. Perhaps parents can set a secret budget limit upon entry to the Workshop and if, when choosing, the children select a Bear whose price exceeds the limit, the friendly automated system urges the children to choose a related but cheaper Bear, or to consult their parents for permission.
  2. The modes of interaction during Bear selection should help train kids to interact with key portions of other steps in the Workshop. For example: currently, blue, cog-like handles are used during the ‘Stuff me’ step…and nowhere else; Also, in the location I visited, the Bears were arranged on two shelves in the ‘Choose me’ step, largely out-of-reach of most young children. Perhaps the Bears could be arranged in a more carousel-like fashion, allowing the blue cog to help kids rotate between bears.
  3. Children should feel confident that their new Bear will support the types of dresses and accessories they envision selecting. For example: in the Workshop I visited, ‘Choose me’ was in a corner opposite that of the outfits; many kids grabbed a Bear and immediately ran across the Workshop to try on dresses, when the expected behavior was to step in the line for stuffing where, kids were likely to be disappointed in their choice as compared to the Bears chosen by the kids ahead or behind them. Perhaps there are two improvements: 1) have multiple ‘Choose me’ spots to avoid crowd control and encourage exploration; 2) Enhance the ‘Dressing room’ mirrors (discussed in an upcoming section) with Augmented Reality features and smart sensors to help children preview their Bears with their desired outfits and accessories (similar to Lego stores today).

Step 2: Stuff me

Psychology deep-dive

  • This step seems the most climactic: the Bear is given life by the child
  • A deeply ritualistic and personal moment is facilitated by a Workshop staff member and captured by parents: a child is directed to perform several actions with a small toy heart that will soon be placed inside the Bear; each action follows this recipe, “Put it on your X so it’s Y” (where X is ‘funny bone’ and Y is ‘silly’, etc.)
  • Small blue cogs are placed at children’s eye level and designed for kids to operate so they can feel like they are part of the birthing ceremony, therefore acting as parents in a sense.
  • Optionally, kids can choose their Bear’s voice. Much like in the previous step, kids may pick as a form of self-expression or self-reflection, as a way to complete their collection, as a way to compensate for a lack of pet or sibling, or as a way to anthropomorphize a character from their favorite movie

Ways to improve

Ideally, children and parents would experience this step together as co-pilots with little or no help from staff. There’s a lot to consider in making this change. I call out major obstacles below.

  1. Remove the need to ‘wait in line’ and give families the choice to explore now or later or both. Currently, this step is designed to come second, after a child picks their Bear. Because of this linearity, the Workshop I visited required a physical, wrapping, roped area to handle the unavoidable line. Kids in line grew noticeably impatient, wanting instead to try on outfits and accessories. As kids grew impatient, so did their parents, thereby increasing stress all around. Perhaps instead of wait in line, Workshops can use one of two alternatives: 1) take a number and come back when called; 2) record your name and photo and come back when called; Both methods enable families to tour the Workshop, keeps them alert and in anticipation of the reward of having their name or number called, and helps prevent crowds forming.
  2. Maintaining safety but removing stress. Currently, there is a single stuffing machine operated by either one or two staff members. One staff member stuffs one Bear for one child while the parent(s) crowd around to supervise, listen, and capture several moments or the entire ceremony. The staff member operates a few mechanisms during the ceremony: a long pipe is inserted into the bear, a button is pressed to pump stuffing into the bear, scissors are used to cut extra stitching. Meanwhile, kids are left to alternate between watching staff member or their Bear or their surroundings, touching knobs on the machine or grabbing and holding a heart, or standing still. Parents are also left to alternate between watching the same things, allowing or scolding their children for touching the knobs, or recording the ceremony. Perhaps the machine can be better designed such that parents have accessible instructions for each micro-step and can help coach their children through the ceremony, operating some mechanisms and letting their children operate others; the cameras mentioned in item #2 below can alert staff members if parent or child activity seems alarming.
  3. Maintaining the ability to capture each moment. If parents are expected to act more as machine operators and supervisors, then the job of recording must be automated. Perhaps the stuffing machine can be fitted with optimally placed cameras that are ‘always on’, and through Artificial Intelligence only the moments where children have smiles are saved, packaged, and stored in the cloud for parents to collect later.
  4. Increasing the power of the moment where children give their bear a personalized heart. Currently, children are advised by a staff member to pick a heart and follow recited instructions. For children, this moment seems the most powerful, most delightful, and most engaging. To increase its momentous and lasting effect, perhaps parents can select and minimally customize a Mad-Libs-esque script that is recited by a virtual mascot appearing on-screen that mimics their chosen Bear’s visual and audio features, as if it is their Bear requesting all this of their soon-to-be-heart.

Step 3: Fluff me

Psychology deep-dive

  • Having just ‘given birth’ to their Furry Friend, it is time to clean them. This is the first right of passage for children as a new parent.
  • It is equally important for parents to capture the excitement on their children’s faces in this moment.

Ways to improve

Ideally, children would experience this step with no help from their parents.

  1. Make more clear how children operate this station. Currently, the setup is a large empty bath with two overhung lamp-like fans, a small stand for small children to step on so they can access the bath, and a pedal to trigger the fans. In my visit — which included a 6 and 8 year old — both kids failed to notice the pedal. Perhaps this station could have a large sign (maybe a sticker fixed to the side of the bath in clear view of children) indicating the pressing the pedal will operate the fan.
  2. Maintaining the ability to capture each moment. This point is similar to the one from ‘Stuff me’ above, with one caveat: since parents won’t be involved in the activity for this station, they are free to operate their own recording device throughout the child’s experience. Still, perhaps this station can be fitted with optimally placed cameras that are ‘always on’, and through Artificial Intelligence only the moments where children have smiles are saved, packaged, and stored in the cloud for parents to collect later.

Step 4: Dress me

Psychology deep-dive

  • This is the step most children go nuts for, and rightly so: most Furry Friends can inherently be outfitted in numerous ways. The myriad of possible combinations makes for a playground of creative fashion styles.
  • This is the step most parents stress about, and rightly so: each accessory ranges is price, from understandable to inordinately high.
  • Therefore, this step winds up being a tug-of-war battle between parent and child centered solely on price and often negatively impacting the child’s attitude. It doesn’t have to be like this!

Ways to improve

  1. Pivot the joy derived from this step from that of exploring outfit combinations to that of a scavenger hunt. Perhaps this step could be more like Ikea: in Step 1, children choose their Bear and — as suggested in this article — instantly use some Augmented Reality system to explore outfits and accessories; if all goes well, children will decide here what outfit they want; the system can then output each accessory’s location code(s) in a list that children are encouraged to complete as they find each item and, perhaps, literally add it to their shopping cart. Following this model, the parents can see up-front what the total cost will be and can help children customize outfits based on their budget. Of course, children are still free to explore outfits and accessories around the store after their Bear is stuffed and fluffed. But I would wager that this system would significantly reduce the tug-of-war feeling alluded to earlier.

Step 5: Name me

Psychology deep-dive

  • This step is designed to be last; right before check-out. Therefore, it is assumed that kids have a fully stuffed, fluffed and dressed Bear. The last thing kids want to do right now is fill out a form…unless it is designed to feel more like their bear has come to life and is asking them to name it. That experience could feel entirely more heartwarming and rewarding, in my opinion.

Ways to improve

Ideally, children would experience this step with little or no help from their parents.

  1. Make more clear that all information entered (except the child’s name) pertains to their Furry Friend. In my visit, when presented with ‘Date of Birth’, my party mistook that for the child’s date of birth; we spent several minutes selecting from several drop-down menus to complete this task. This should not have even been a task: the system should have auto-completed this for us and labeled it ‘Furry Friend’s Birthday’ or something equivalent.
  2. Make the entire process of this step more accessible to children. In my visit, this process was performed at a computer screen roughly four feet above the floor. Presented on screen was a standard form with labels intuitive only to parents, such as: Date of Birth, Email Address, etc. In most cases, parents were completing this step on behalf of their children. Perhaps the interface can feel more like interacting with a Workshop mascot on a stand-up computer with a kid-size screen and utilizing motion-capture technology like Microsoft’s Kinect. This way, kids are free to hold up their Bear so the computer can scan it, kids can use their hands to input numbers, and kids can touch appropriately-sized buttons on the screen to choose from a list of options, like Bear names.

Step 6: Take me home

Psychology deep-dive

  • Kids are excited and can’t wait to outfit their Bear with the myriad of items they collected around the Workshop
  • Parents are dreading the price tag and the subsequent bad news to their kids: make a choice because you can’t have it all [Note: this part may have happened during Step 4 or 5]
  • Kids are now saddened, deflated, and angry that they must sacrifice even a single accessory for their Bear. This could easily result in an overall bad experience…given that most experiences are remembered predominantly by what happens last.
  • Parents eventually have to pay…and could feel flustered while searching for their wallet, for coupons, or if they have to simultaneously wrangle their children while waiting for the Workshop staff to place their children’s Bear in his/her temporary box-house.

Ways to improve

  1. Remove the need to check out. Do whatever is necessary go from dressing and naming a Bear…to walking out of the Workshop with the Bear either in hand or in the delightful box-house. Perhaps things can operate like they do at Amazon Go stores: Parents scan their phone upon entry; the Workshop is fitted with all sorts of technical infrastructure like sensors and cameras in the walls and on shelves; when children are ready to leave, parents can confirm in their app everything the children grabbed (optionally manually placing the Bear in his/her box house) and just walk out knowing Build-A-Bear will charge their account.

What might a store layout blueprint look like in order to accommodate these improved steps?

Layout blueprint designed to move ‘Stuff me’ machines to the store’s front as sales tools and emphasize a largely open feel where kids are free to roam

Key highlights

  • At least two ‘Choose me’ stations, each outfitted with different Bears, possibly arranged in two tiers (lower and upper end)
  • ‘Choose me’ and ‘Dress me’ stations organized in a way that encourages children to walk or run from the middle or one end of the Workshop to the middle or another end of the Workshop, all without interrupting children at other stations, and all while waiting for their name to be called
  • ‘Name me’ stations are no longer grouped and centralized in the Workshop. Instead, they are separated and scattered around so children can use them at any time.
  • A manual checkout area remains for parents without the app or smart phones
  • The ‘Fluff me’ station is placed in a location befitting an ‘optional’ — or at least less integral — step: far back corner, away from most of the noise, for the more intimate moment of fluffing the Bears

That just about does it

The highly considered design choices laid out above are the result of my one-hour visit to a Build-A-Bear Workshop…and the subsequent several days of ruminating while on vacation.

I hope you had as much fun reading as I had writing.

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