Jason Bell


A collection of blog posts, hopefully slightly less cringe-y than Live Journal, and who knows, perhaps they’re entertaining.

It's the User EXPERIENCE, stupid!


This week retail giant Toys R Us UK fell into administration. What was once the king of toys has now fallen by the wayside and during this time comes a period of reflection. I’ve already seen many eulogies mourning the experience of going to the toy store and how Amazon is destroying the high street. Evil online entities destroying society, rotting its core and making our culture cold and distant...


Now I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never seen a Toys R Us on the high street, the smallest one I ever encountered was when I lived in Vancouver, hidden on the basement of a mall, even then though you couldn’t call it a small store. Toys R Us’ were found in out of town shopping complexes, outside away from city centres where they can afford the rent on a huge warehouse. Ironically Toys R Us was a part of what people said was killing the local high street 30 years ago. Anyway, as toys are still part of life, how did one of our largest brands fall out of favour? I’d argue that it wasn’t price or product, but instead, the user experience.


People will spend more money if you provide them value beyond their expected expectations of a physical good. What do you value in a good? Is it just the effect or do you enjoy the ritual? When you have coffee do you just neck it to get the caffeine buzz or do you take your time with a cafetiere and fancy beans with music in the background? When you watch a highly anticipated film do you do it on your phone on the go, or do you visit the cinema with friends and make an event from it? If Toys R Us was no longer an experience, how are other stores thriving?


To give some context I think it’s best I give a little history on one of my old jobs, you see, not so long ago I was a Bear Builder. Yup. Despite my dark sense of humour, generally disheveled look and raw hatred for forced fun, I found myself as a Bear Builder and you know what, I was damn good at it. From age 19 to 24 with a few breaks in between, across two countries I worked in five Build-A-Bear Workshop stores, working my way from Christmas temp to Assistant Manager. Although at times I hated the yellow walls, saccharine music and tired of explaining to customers that we were a store, not a creche, I learned a hell of a lot from working there.


A customer can buy a bear from anywhere, but they make their best friend at Build-a-Bear. The experience of building the bear personally links the customer to the experience, people want to go through the experience of being involved with the toy’s creation. Yes, sometimes the big boxes of empty ‘skins’ can appear creepy, but to see the bear fill out at the stuffing machine (which yes, is warm, yes, is loud and yes, has exploded everywhere and made a huge mess, so please move your child from the heavy machinery) is a magical experience. This experience is not something that can be bought or placate through a different way. When you buy a bear from Amazon at likely half the price you don’t have the same emotional investment that you would have if you had picked it, stuffed it, dressed it, made a birth certificate and taken it home in a cardboard ‘cub condo’. This doesn’t even mention the personalised ‘heart ceremony’ for each bear where a customer has the chance to create an even deeper emotional bond with their new furry friend.


Whilst many companies felt pains during the 2008-2009 recession, Build-a-Bear actually grew. Whilst access to money was tighter it had greater value, as a result the money was being spent by people in ways to get more from it. When spending money do you buy a bear from Amazon or Toys R Us to placate a child, or do you make an event of building a bear with the whole family?

This is far more common than you would think.

This is far more common than you would think.

Build-a-Bear adds a personal layer to an existing product, some people take than even further. There have been times I’ve inserted engagement rings and even new phones into bears just for the receiver of the bear to be told to rip it open. “Happy birthday darling, please stab this bear I got you to receive your other gift.” To each their own. During my tenure as a Bear Builder there were occasions where I was shown just how important the experience could be, I’ve helped put the voice messages of dying people into bears so their families have something to hear them with, I’ve inserted toys and remains of family pets into cat or dog toys to always have them around, and yes, I’ve also put cremated human remains into toys. Whilst some may find this morbid, it truly helped those it was for. People wouldn’t do this at Toys R Us.


There’s the opportunity for companies to make money in building on the experience where there may have been no hope. In one of my most brazen sales successes I managed to turn what could have been shrinkage into a sale worth well over £100. We had received a shipment of bears with their legs sewn on backwards, we were told to see if we could sell them heavily reduced but just to send them back to the warehouse if we couldn’t sell them over the weekend. Challenge accepted. By dressing the bear in a hospital gown, putting it a wheelchair and cast, then dressing another bear in medical scrubs I’d created a scene, and an instant sale. Selling the story of a hospital visit, a family bought the set for a their daughter who had recently broken her leg.


So, what’s the point you ask? User experience builds audiences, serving customers and creating money. User experience should be at the core of our product and service. Instead of just asking ‘what problem are we solving?’ we should also ask ‘what experience are we creating?’. Amazon thrives due to it being personalised and instantaneous shopping right to your door without the need to leave the house. Etsy excels in the products made being personalised and special to the individual. Netflix and Spotify have taken large chunks out of stealing content by giving individuals the simple experience of finding films, tv and music. Sure, you could’ve sailed over to the Pirate Bay to download a film, but why risk malware and dodgy links if you just pay a low subscription and get better quality?

User experience is important and customers will flock to something that speaks to them. Don’t make your customer jump through hoops, help make their day, and they’ll reward you handsomely.

Yes. I have been in both of these.

Yes. I have been in both of these.