September 20th, 2011

Designing the Web a la Ikea

An Ikea map... stay on the path

There are many things one could say about Ikea: cheap furniture, great meatballs, svlurden hurden.

Ok, so that last one isn’t really a word, but this is beside the point.

Say what you will about the design, quality or price point of Ikea’s products, you would be hard-pressed to deny that they have come up with extremely effective retail strategy that, to my knowledge, is unmatched by any other big box store.

It’s all about experience

The key to Ikea’s success is the way they are committed to treating their customers to more than just your average Saturday shopping trip; when you go to Ikea you have an experience. The moment you enter the parking lot you are swallowed by the blue and yellow world that is Ikea. Friendly, colorful signage directs you to the place you must go next, enticed all along the way by a vivid selection of fashionable and inexpensive products.

Inevitably you will buy something. Don’t fight it.

You might also have a nice hot lunch, send your kid to a minimalist playground, and take a nap on one of the display beds. And in the end, when you have finally completed your knick-knack and furniture shopping for the fiscal quarter, somehow you don’t mind the fact that you have to dig your un-assembled products out of the warehouse. In spite of this, it’s still all a big, fun game.

What has all this got to do with the web?

So why is a web designer talking about Ikea? Is there anything the Swedish furniture giant can teach us about how we structure and design the interactions on the web?

When we walk through an Ikea store, we are compelled to move along a predetermined path, which leads us down the ideal shopping route. Products are presented to us in a logical sequence, with opportunities for deeper exploration around every corner. Similarly, when we design a website we should consider the experience a user will have when they follow the path from arrival to action.

Experience is flow

The word experience has been tossed around a lot in the last few years in the context of web design, but I think it has been largely misunderstood. Experience it not synonymous with showmanship; talking suitcases or multi-dimensional navigation menus might be a lot of fun, but they do not necessarily equate to a successful website.

On top of this, too many designers are overly concerned with that the user sees first, that is, what’s at the very top of the homepage. Perhaps it is the client who has expressed this concern in the form of  “everything must be above the fold, or I will surely die!”.

The result of this fatalistic philosophy is usually a busy mess of a homepage, without focus or direction.

I am not suggesting that the top of the homepage should be intentionally boring; on the contrary a user’s first impression is critical to their continued interest. The key thing to note here is the continued interest we are trying to foster. If we focus all our attention on the top of the homepage, the remainder of the site ends up being a mass of useless filler, another bus-load of prisoners in the penitentiary of unseen web pages.

If, on the other hand, we consider that our users might actually understand the principles of page-scrolling and linking, if we give our users a purpose, send them on a journey, or offer them a goal, then they may actually feel a sense of personal and emotional investment in our websites. We designers might discover that we can put some pretty nifty content on places like… dare I say… the bottom of a page. If the user is led to that place in a logical way, the fact of its particular position on a particular page is irrelevant; the important fact is that they have arrived there of their own volition, if enticed by a clever designer’s compelling sign-posts and persuasive design.

Ikea has the right idea: they don’t have too much in the way of flashy displays. Just a well defined path with some compelling stopping points. Sure, maybe a full-scale replica of your new modernist kitchen is hiding around the corner, but it is made that much more impactful by the path along which you have travelled to get there. You, the empowered shopper, have followed the big yellow line of your own free will. You have decided when to stop and when to proceed. You have ventured into the Svlurden Hurden bedroom set with the reassurance of that yellow line just a few feet away.

You have decided what to buy. Ikea helped.

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