Another day, another post on Norsemen selling furniture for college kids and divorced men. The question this time is about how IKEA designs products, which the Wall Street Journal describes as an excruciating, arduous process (The Long, Slow Process of IKEA Design, Oct 14).
It takes car companies about three years to design a sedan, and handset makers can churn out a new smartphone in six months. But an IKEA kitchen takes half a decade to create. …
“It’s five years of work into finding ways to engineer cost out of the system, to improve the functionality,” Mr. Agnefjäll said of the company’s “Metod” kitchen, a new model, during an interview at a store in his hometown of Malmo, located on Sweden’s southwest coast.
The Metod kitchen (translated as “Method” in English), is the brainchild of a clutch of designers sitting near IKEA’s headquarters here. The goal is to achieve “democratic design,” products that will work in homes whether they are located in Beijing, Madrid or Topeka.
IKEA—known for minimalist design—packs enormous complexity into a kitchen. Metod consists of 1,100 different components, and distilling them all into a cheap, green and easily shippable package has proved arduous.
As the Swedes tell it, they go through a lot of steps to get the design just right.
So is the Journal right to label IKEA as slow and plodding?
It seems to me that IKEA’s design process is very much in line with their overall strategy and it is a little unfair to compare their process to carmakers. Theirs is a business built on volume. There are no halo products among their kitchens that sell only in limited quantities as Chevy has with the Corvette. And if you are going to sell thousands of kitchens a year over many years, then it is worth investing in the design upfront so it can be produced in the planned quantity at the planned price.
There are other factors that come into play. There is a segment of customers who will buy a new car every five years or so. Only true masochists replace their kitchens every five years. A slower customer cycle should slow the design cycle. If customers are only coming into the kitchen market every ten years or so, then a design that is seven years old can still seem fairly fresh to the consumer — it’s something that wasn’t there the last time they consider their kitchen.
Finally, another consideration is competition. The car industry is brutally competitive. A bad design is costly and likely demands a quick redo (as Honda did a few years ago with the Civic). It is not clear that IKEA faces the same competitive pressure. They are at the low-end of the market for kitchens and the most likely competition (at least in the States) is from big box home improvement stores. But Home Depot or Lowe’s do not offer the all-encompassing solutions that IKEA does. That is, Lowe’s can trick your kitchen out with matching cabinets but they do not offer the complementing drawer organizers that IKEA has. The Lowe’s product may have equal or better construction but IKEA is pushing higher design content and overall vision.