Out of their depth

On Monday night, I went to IKEA. Personally, I like IKEA. The furniture looks nice enough and I feel as though the money I spend there is proportional to the value I receive from having IKEA products in my home. And I like that I can leave without ever having dealt with a salesperson. Yet practically no mention of IKEA may go by without eliciting at least one of the two chief complaints about IKEA:

  1. IKEA stores are like mazes and easy to get lost in.
  2. IKEA assembly instructions are difficult to understand and to complete.

I wonder about where these complaints come from, however, because I’ve never been lost in IKEA (though I admit that IKEA generally permits only movement forward and backward, but almost never left or right). And I’ve never had any trouble following IKEA’s assembly instructions, even when following the directions took far longer than I guessed. Indeed, compared to other flat pack furniture, IKEA’s instructions are a model of excellence when it comes to realistic scale and orientation.

So having heard these complaints about IKEA for so long, I think the complaints might actually reveal less about IKEA, and more about the people complaining. The people complaining have a harder time thinking about movement through space and time. IKEA’s buildings could almost certainly be designed to be less demanding of spatial reasoning skills.  But surely there’s no business case for making the directions any more demanding than necessary. Instead, I suspect that IKEA’s directions are a minimally demanding example of the wordless flat pack assembly directions genre. It leads to an awkward conclusion: the people complaining of being unable to complete IKEA’s instructions shouldn’t really be trying.

In some ways, the problem of users being unqualified to follow some directions is routine. Writers often take steps to tell their readers the prerequisites for some task. Some will do so explicitly, with a list or a qualifying statement (“To complete this tutorial, you’ll need…”). Others will do so more implicitly, describing a task in terms that only an audience member meeting the prerequisites would understand or recognize. In any case, it’s a solved problem, since, in most cases, the prerequisites are acquirable. You simply ask your user to come back later.

In the case of IKEA’s product, however, the prerequisite skill of translating two-dimensional images into a three-dimensional object isn’t exactly something you can go out and learn in an afternoon. As much as it would amuse me to see it, IKEA can’t exactly prepend a step to their directions requiring users to first spend a few years playing with LEGO bricks. It’s a tough thing to ask. But remaining silent on the matter isn’t doing their brand any favors, as their instructions’ reputation so clearly indicates. Sometimes you have to be honest with your audience, even if that means telling them that they’re out of their depth.

One thought on “Out of their depth

  1. It seems to me that IKEA has written its instructions to be easily understood by the largest number of people. Some people don’t get it. Some need written insructions, or color coding. IKEA could make better instructions for a certain subset, but they would be excluding a large number of others.

    I would be happy if they added identifiers to the parts (peg A into slot B type thing), but I get it. They haven’t made the perfect set of instructions, they’ve made the best instructions they can and still be universal.

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