How working at IKEA ignited my passion for design

In 2016 I took a break from web development and went to work at my local IKEA’s Customer Service department. What was supposed to be a temporary measure ended up becoming a starting point for a new career in digital design.

Photo by Thomas Litangen on Unsplash

The one and a half year I spent at IKEA wasn’t always easy. I was going through a tough time in my life, feeling stuck after a traumatic event. I couldn’t work as a web developer any more. Couldn’t focus. I needed a break. That’s how I ended up at IKEA.

It was supposed to be a temporary measure. Initially I thought about it as just a different job, not related to web dev. I was happy to help the customers and I thought I’ll fit fine there.

What I didn’t imagine is that working at IKEA will become an extraordinary learning experience. Looking back, I can say it was definitely worth doing this.

I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned there.

Every object around us has been designed by someone

The first thing you learn at IKEA is that there are people who are behind every item of furniture and every appliance. They take you to a conferece room and show you videos of designers telling stories about the things they designed. They go into details of how they tackled problems with materials, logistics, quality. I was astonished how the stories really resonated with me and my work colleagues and initiated conversations. I had my first hunch that this isn’t going to be “just a job”.

I started looking more consciously at the objects that are around me. I started asking questions about the thought process their designer had to undertake, the limitations they overcame, the clever solutions they invented, so I and milions of other people can sit on a chair at home some day.

I started going through IKEA’s product pages to read about the designers and their workflows. I learned to appreciate the process and effort required to make the simplest things happen.

I’ve never considered becoming a designer. I always thought of myself as a programmer or developer. I’ve been programming since I was 8 years old. But when I started working in web dev, I immensely enjoyed the initial part of every project: the “thinking up” part, which required me to come up with ideas that would suit both the users and the company who wanted me to create a solution suitable for their business goals.

One year after I left IKEA, I’m learning digital product design and I’m probably not going back to real programming.

The power of large scale iteration

I vividly remember seeing a sticker glued by someone years ago to the doors of a locker in the employees’ changing room. It was right next to my locker and whenever I came to work I could see it, read it and think about it. It said:

Quality in quantity.

Is it possible to mix those two? Aren’t those two exclusive? Wouldn’t you sacrifice on quality if you go for quantity? On the other hand, isn’t it actually a good idea to increase the output and be able to learn for the sheer volume faster?

Of course, going for quantity requires equal focus on quality. But I would say that quality is meeting all expectations, both business’ and users’. And I think that the misleading part in the quality over quantity problem is that people tend to think that they have to provide some unearthly levels of quality for a product to be considered “good”. Truth is, that’s not necessary. My usual example from web dev are the guys who say they won’t use jQuery because it adds kilobytes to the weight of the page and they will do everything in pure JS instead. Premature optimisation comes to mind.

Yesterday I read an article by Tom Kuegler: 5 Things You Need To Do To Create A Quality Blog Post (I recommend you to read it). It immediately reminded me about the sticker.

IKEA’s way of doing things, as seen from a business perspective, is this: manufacture and sell large volumes of products and be able to optimise as much as possible, faster.

There are some issues you can only see if you increase the output.

There are more opportunities to learn from increased output.

There is more user feedback, gathered faster.

Working in Customer Support allowed me to see first-hand how IKEA implements workflows to quickly iterate on customer feedback. They do this first locally, then move up the ladder if there’s a need to make changes on a global scale.

On multiple occasions I’ve read about the differences between running UX projects during workshops and actually working for a company. The main difference is that during a workshop you focus on being thurough with one project to learn the basics. That’s not enough though for doing actual real-life work as UX designer. It’s only good when you are just starting.

Being a user experience designer at a company will require from you to carry multiple projects at the same time. So a beginner has to prepare for this. You can’t sit on every detail as long as you would like. You have to optimise your workflow to increase the output without sacrificing quality.

You can also use this approach to your advantage in the beginning phase of your learning. Instead of creating three projects that are just perfect, you will probably learn faster and more if you allow yourself a bit more slack and instead go for more less polished projects in the initial stage. Quality will come from increasing the number of learning opportunities.

As Tom Kuegler put it:

Everybody always says quality takes a hit when you put out so much, but what they don’t account for is how we get more efficient with repetition. I am so much faster at video editing now compared to before.
— Tom Kuegler, 5 Things You Need To Do To Create A Quality Blog Post

Also, as a designer, you are encouraged to iterate often and as cheaply as possible. The deliverables can become either heavy roadblocks or featherlight project aids. It’s up to you to choose.

It’s been almost exaclty one year since I left IKEA. I’m happy I took the chance and used it in such an unexpected way. Every time I work on my product design projects I run into ideas I took from the time I was solving people’s furniture problems. I encourage you all to take a look around you and think about all the work and thought that was put into every object you see. We can and should put digital design in the larger context of design as this will allow us to be inspired by other areas of creative thinking and the people behind the things we so often take for granted.