So, your Billy Bookcase set has a missing piece…
a. Start building, get 95% through, then realise and drop to your knees in defeat?
b. Immediately call Customer Support and attempt to remain friendly, despite the searing rage hidden only slightly beneath the surface?
or c. Curse the IKEA Gods and find the nearest roll of duct tape?
All frustration considered. That wonky, duct-tape wrapped piece of furniture you saved will become an object of greater value to you. You created this- and now, like clockwork, you’ll sit back and admire that object you’ve been sweating over for the past couple of hours.
”The Fruit of Your Labour”
Founded in 1943, Ikea became both a worldwide giant and household name. So much so, that the psychological phenomenon associated with this love humans have of our own self-assembled furniture (and anything else we’ve made, whether it’s well-assembled or not) was christened with it’s name.
People attach greater value to things they built than if the very same product was built by someone else. This feeling of completion brings with it a sense of pride and competence, and also (in your own eyes, at least) signals to others that you are competent.
Ikea Founder, Ingvar Kamprad, built a wildly successful business, off of the back of this Cognitive Bias.
The Customer (Post-Purchase) Journey
This is for good reason. There’s a visible ‘friction’ in the Ikea customer experience that feels almost intentionally woven into the process.
Rather than making retail as frictionless as possible like it’s counterparts, Ikea seems to have mapped out the in-store journey of their customer- using this ‘friction’. It brings a commitment of Effort (or, “Labour”)– which produces more memorable and rewarding experiences for it’s patrons.
Where the many visualisations of the IKEA in-store experiences end, the journey I’ve chosen to map out starts.
Once the family leaves the store with cart stacked with brown cardboard boxes. They heave them into their car and carry them back to their home with a distinct feeling of accomplishment (assuming they don’t take the delivery option, of course). The next point of friction in the journey begins there- and continues in an area I’ve called The Buyer’s Gap…
“Everyone has an Ikea Horror Story.”
For some, myself included, Ikea’s wordless construction manuals are works of genius- but for many- they’ve become a source of confusion and frustration.
“A newspaper in Sweden described Ikea (furniture assembly) as something between civil engineering and captaining a submarine, and I think that’s a good description,”
Allan Dickner, IKEA, Deputy Packaging Manager
The Assembly Instructions: Love them, or hate them
According to Jan Fredlund, an Instruction Designer at IKEA, there are two guiding principles within every page of a designed instruction booklet: Clarity and Continuity.
Ikea has christened their instruction designers “Communicators”. There is a deep process in building these manuals that always begins with an important step: User Testing. Communicators start by putting a Product together themselves.
“Test assembly provides an opportunity to find out if there is a risk that the customer might place a certain part in the wrong direction which may not look like an obvious mistake in the moment, but will cause a problem many steps later,”
Jan Fredlund, IKEA, Instruction Designer — Communicator
The Frame-by-frame, Lego-like illustrations are based on construction drawings, digital snapshots, 3-D models, and videos of test assemblies. Each successive picture is rendered from a single, unchanging point-of-view (mimicking that of the customer). Ikea seeks to avoid confusion in their customers with rotations or perspective changes. Orientation is key as the customers move back and forth between booklet and assembling.
The sheer level of rationality, thought and sympathy that goes into these manuals by design is incredible. Yet still, despite all the efforts by the Communicators and Packaging Engineers- there are still many who struggle to comprehend the wordless instructions.
The written manual has already been simplified down to it’s essence. Each tool and part is enumerated. Each step is isolated and defined in a mindful one step at a time process. Right and wrong are clearly illustrated with line-drawn figures. Without a single letter of type. In this way, the product becomes accessible to speakers of any language, any level, any skill. The instructions serve all equally.
So, amidst all of the online complaints, joking and memes, I began to ask:-
How can I make a system already designed for clarity, that people still manage to struggle with, even clearer?
Talking to the Users — Quantitative
The first and second questions were a simple Yes/No response —
- “Do you have previous experience assembling flatpack furniture?”
- “Have you ever purchased and assembled an IKEA product?”
Having confirmed the user as a member of IKEA’s audience- I asked the third, now that I have some context of the individual providing their opinion:
- “How easy is it for you to follow a set of IKEA assembly instructions?”
This question was formed of 5 options, a sliding scale of “Totally clear” to “Extremely difficult”. The result communicated to me that a large majority of my sample group either have extreme difficulty or some confusion while following the illustrated assembly instructions.
Semi-structured Interviews — Qualitative
My favourite step in the research process was interviewing users of the product.
Focusing my questions around coaxing stories of previous IKEA assembly experiences from my sample group (5+ people)- I managed to gain some clarity on the problem- and validation for my solutions:
“I’ve definitely put together several. I think the worst is the few times when the kit was missing some essential part. Or the big things- I put together a bed with storage shelves that was a million steps and took all day.”
From this particular interview, I took away the fact that having some idea of how long the assembly should take- and how many steps there are- could prepare a customer before undertaking the assembly process. “The devil you know…” as they say. Priming them for a long day, if need-be.
“Literally spent the weekend putting IKEA stuff together. Well easy to follow the instructions, way more so than other flat pack furniture”
“I think I may be a freak of nature who thoroughly enjoys putting together IKEA furniture! I find their instructions very clear and love the process.”
Interviewing clarified for me that people with previous experience assembling flat-pack furniture from both IKEA and other companies, have a point of reference to understand the quality and attention that goes into an IKEA instruction manual, as well as a broad understanding of the process itself.
How is IKEA already trying to solve this struggle?
And is there even a reason, or need, for them to?
To Create a Better Everyday Life For the Many People
– IKEA’s Mission Statement Source
IKEA’s business appears somewhat simple at first glance. They provide a range of affordable home furnishing products. But their aim is to give everyone, the many, access to sustainable, functional, high-quality furnishing. The many, not just the few.
Using this mission as a basis, accessibility is the aim. If there are some who find the product inaccessible due to difficulties with assembly- IKEA is working to bring access to them, also.
But, by out-sourcing the assembly, essentially removing a part of the “Labour of Love” aspect in assembling, will that remove “The IKEA Effect” from the equation also?
Note: This is not a project undertaken with the official IKEA team. This is a concept built and prototyped by myself as a Personal Project and Assignment for the Codaisseur Design Academy.
Value Proposition Canvas
Based on a fairly general persona generated by the sample groups I interviewed and delivered a Questionnaire to- I generated a Value Proposition Canvas based on solving the struggles identified above.
My Solution can be broken down into three distinct areas:
I first chose to develop an application built into the Search Engine of the Ikea.com homepage. The basis of my decision to start with desktop was simple, mainly based on a single metric I came across early in the process:
The icon was designed in respect to the original “Helper” character pictured in the traditionally printed IKEA Instruction Manuals, a nod back to the original Medium:
The “Let’s Assemble” Icon takes the “Helper” Symbol that IKEA has pictured traditionally (below)- and combines it with the context of a TV-icon. Your second pair of hands, through your screen.
My concept for the Player felt like it would make or break this solution. There were more than a few questions to consider as I thumb-nailed concepts:
- How do I make the controls recognisable as video-controls, while still making it clear that this is not a traditional “video tutorial”?
- How do I reflect to the user what is the current step, previous step and next step (in the UI)? How do the steps transition from one to the next?
- How do I keep the user aware of how many steps into the process they are? i.e. breadcrumbs
A User Interview that highlighted some of these questions:
“My last attempt at an IKEA item was a wooden stool. I thought since the stool was only about 2 feet or so that it would come fully put together. But of course, it came in an obscene amount of pieces and less-than-totally-clear instructions.”
Q: Why do you find the instructions less-than-clear?
“I kind of… tend to skip the whole ‘check you have all these pieces’ step, but then between checking and re-checking the instructions it just gets kind of impossible to keep track of all the bits and pieces. Then I kind of forget where I am in all the steps and start improvising- which doesn’t end well.”
In a sentence: I wanted to create a Player for a string of short-form (digestible) looping videos (/animations)- so the user always knows where they are in the process and what action to take.
Why not just do video tutorials?
“While I’m following a tutorial, I have to pay attention to the video screen, pause the video, go back to the task, do it, then play the video again. I get distracted a lot and miss steps too, so I have to rewind… again and again…”
This solution, digestible animated content, was designed as a remedy for this.
Finally, The Mobile Remote
The final piece in the puzzle was developing a Mobile Remote App that accompanies the “Let’s Assemble” Player Function.
In addition to giving the User the ability to scan the barcode of their purchased Assembly Set– the concept was to allow the User to control the step-by-step process either through the touchscreen of their phone, or Simple Vocal Commands “Next Step” would prompt the Player, through Mobile, to move onto the next step in the Video Slides.
In a Usability Test/Interview a tester mentioned that the remote control interface could be made simpler. No need for the Video Thumbnail in the background, simply the controls and perhaps a thumbnail of the Product being built on-screen. Initially, I had designed the app with the possibility built-in to screencast to TV or Desktop. A lighter-build option would be to send through a launch-link on CTA to be opened on a chosen Laptop or Desktop Computer, and allow Mobile Control from there once launched.
The tester also mentioned that Sliding Gestures could also be made use of to navigate through the steps.
Reflections and Learnings
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned throughout this project has been “You can’t do everything. Prioritise.”
Whenever I’m faced with a problem, looking for a solution- it’s as if the flood-gates open. There are so many possible solutions and so many things I could do. The questions I need to ask myself at that point where I’m getting giddy with excitement and want to do all of the things are:
- Is this a Must-have? A Should-have? Or a Could-have?
- Does this even really solve the problem? Or do I just think it’s pretty cool.
- Can I do less, more efficiently, design it well- and still solve the problem?
I sometimes get overwhelmed by the volume of my own ideas. Scaling down and considering what’s important to my user, rather than myself, may be a remedy for this.
Thanks for reading!
I’m Eli Hughes, an Illustrator and UX Designer living in Amsterdam.
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I love stories and I love people. I spend a bunch of my time thinking about what people do and why people do it. Follow me to hear about the next article on my experiences moving from one domain of Design to live inside another. From Architecture, to UX.