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6 August 2010 / Chris Neal

What Ikea has taught me about application development

Last weekend was spent sorting out the kid’s bedrooms. New furniture in, some old furniture out via Ebay & Freecycle, some old furniture resurrected, and plenty of grunting and whinging at seemingly ill-fitting bits of MDF. I must admit, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship to Ikea (other flat pack furniture suppliers are available). But, they are successful at what they do and like all successful businesses they can give some good pointers in how to do things

tiny bit of Ikea construction, courtesy of tilaneseven

My two sons needed a bigger wardrobe, and I had two dismantled Ikea wardrobes in the loft (Aneboda if you’re at all interested). Easy, I thought, just pick the best bits from both and job done.  Unfortunately it wasn’t quite so straightforward.   Although the doors were the same height and width, the sides were different. One of them was deeper than the other, which I only found out after several minutes scratching my head at why the holes for the top were completely out of kilter with the dowels. Ikea must have made them narrower at some point, which makes a lot of sense as a few centimetres shaved of the depth will lose a fair bit of overall weight to the flat pack package.

Next job was to build some drawers (Malm, I believe). A couple of years ago I’d built the same set. This time though it was a much easier process. Although the drawers were the same size and looked the same, building them was much easier. The drawers themselves had been re-designed. Apologies, but I’m going to get technical now. The runner bits with the roller things on, was now fitted around each side so it held the sides and base. This made the side but narrower and lighter, but also held the drawer in better and made it slide in and out more smoothly. The way the backs of the drawers were fitted was also improved.  A number of the parts including (sorry more technical jargon), the twisty round bits that you turn around the bits that are half-screw and half-nail to hold the sides on, were now plastic and not metal. The instructions had been updated, as had the packaging, the bits you needed first were at the top.

Now I’d always thought that once the designers had designed the product that was it, on to the next one and next name. But it seems not, like all good companies Ikea refine and then refine some more. A metal component replaced by a plastic one, over several thousand products will save a lot of weight and reduced shipping costs. The new drawer design coupled with the improved instructions certainly saved me time and effort, and I was definitely more in the love side than hate side of the relationship by the time I’d finished.

They had made the changes to not only improve the product for the consumer, but also to reduce the overall size and weight of the flat packs to be shipped, which reduces their costs. You can learn a lot from others who are not necessarily in the same market as you. Apps can always be refined and improved, and also not just from the user perspective but from the producers/maintainers perspective. Look at the things that annoy you when you use the app/product, but also the stuff behind the scenes that costs you money when you operate or maintain the code. Collate all this stuff, prioritise and then refine, refine, refine!

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3 Comments

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  1. Robin Rawson-Tetley / Aug 6 2010 7:40 pm

    Unfortunately, while all developers would love to refine and refactor code, management usually demand that we work on either the new and shiny or unglamorous bug fixing. Both of which have measurable customer demand.

    When it comes to code, it’s a tough sell that there’s any real profit in refactoring – easier maintenance and future extension for other developers is difficult to measure and turn into a calculable monetary saving.

    And we don’t speak the name of the beast in our house, referring to it only as “the four-letter word”.

    • Chris Neal / Aug 6 2010 8:37 pm

      But what do management know, eh Rob?

      We did manage once to refactor a mortgage search engine, which not only speeded it up but consolidated a number of disparate modules that was much more maintainable, but as you say, it’s not always a priority.

      As for “the four letter word” it’s been a necessary evil for us on a number of occasions. Although, the retail experience is often mind-bendingly awful.

      • Robin Rawson-Tetley / Aug 6 2010 9:53 pm

        Nothing mate, that’s why they’re managers! Being fair, there’s probably a happy medium somewhere between the attitude of developers, who are never happy with anything, and managers, who are seemingly happy with any old shit as long as it works.

        The IKEA experience is something I always find bewildering, but I quite like the meatballs.

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