Why are Ikea instructions so hard?

August 5, 2016 8:39:05 AM CDT / by Ricardo Pellafone

So, we’ve just moved into our new office. And we’re a startup, which means that (1) we like cool things but (2) we have to be resourceful in finding them.

For example, we have these cool cubicles, but it’s because we got them for free on Craigslist.




We can’t always get that lucky, so this means we buy a lot of stuff from Ikea. And that means we spend a lot of time looking at these things:




Woof. These are not easy to use.

But you already know that; the question is why.

After all, we previously showed you how pictures can make things easier for people to understand, even when you're dealing with language and cultural barriers. And it's obvious that a lot of thought and care goes into Ikea's instructions, too; there's not really much you could do to improve on the visual representation.

So why are they so tough to use? 

Well, it’s because pictures are amazing, but they're not magic. They have to be the right tool for the job.




When you’re assembling furniture, you’re doing a spatial reasoning task—that is, you’re trying to manipulate objects in a three-dimensional plane. The best tool for that job is video, because it makes it easy to see how those objects will fit together. 

And that's why Ikea's instructions are so hard to follow—you have to make the jump from 2-D drawings to a 3-D task, and that jump can be tough.

On the other hand, compliance learning is an abstract reasoning task: you’re trying to identify patterns, apply rules, and make judgment calls in real time. The right tool for this job is more context-specific.

Specifically, this means that you should be using different methods depending on what you want people to learn.

For example, do you want your managers to be able to identify a red flag for fraud or corruption in an invoice? That's a visual, pattern recognition task. Your training should be visual and point out where to look. Like this:


(We license that piece in our library. You should subscribe to get it.)

Or, for example, do you want your sales team to know when a conversation with a competitor turns into an antitrust issue?

That's an auditory task—you want them to recognize a pattern when they hear it. You should record short little audio vignettes, or do live-action roleplays, to help them identify those patterns.

And you can do all these things, because you have a lot of ways you can reach your employees—and that's awesome flexibility. (Ikea, on the other hand, has to be able to package their instructions along with their products.)

So, here's the point: good training is designed around real-world use. It should be tailored to the task, not just an explanation of a risk. If it's not, it'll frustrate your employees when they need to actually use it—regardless of how engaging, interactive, or fun it might otherwise be.

Ricardo Pellafone

Written by

Ricardo Pellafone

Ricardo used to be in-house compliance, leading investigations for a sovereign wealth company in Abu Dhabi and a Fortune 200 tech company in California. He has degrees in psychology and law.