The power of putting people first

IKEA has a long history of collaboration. In fact, it’s been at the heart of how we’ve developed products from the very beginning. From working with independent product developers and other companies like LEGO and Sonos, we’ve always collaborated and put our customers’ needs first. But now with new tools and technologies, we’re able to involve partners in new ways—from customers to co-workers to factory workers.

Johan Ejdemo, who leads the Ideas & Exploration team, has a furniture design and product development background that spans over 30 years. Within the last 10 years he has been involved in a new way of working at IKEA, and more recently he began working at Co-create IKEA, where new ideas are developed through collaboration with people from around the world.

Johan Ejdemo

“When I was a cabinetmaker, I would come to people’s homes and talk with them,” says Johan. “Together, we looked at their needs, the problems they wanted to solve and how the solutions could play a role in their lives. Interestingly, when we looked at problems and solutions together, we would come up with more ideas.”

In the past, IKEA co-workers would do home visits in other countries so they could learn from our customers. Now with IKEA co-creation, we have the ability to meet with thousands of customers around the world. Imagine the possibilities when you have a dialogue with that many people in the early product development stage.

(Spoiler alert) This way of working doesn’t start with products

“The way we involve people is different than most companies,” says Johan. “We engage them at the problem level.”

One of the things the team emphasize is that a solution to a problem is not always a product. It could be a service or a change of habit. And while the co-creation method is often focused on current needs, it can also identify future needs, because they put a lot of energy into conducting research, studying changing behaviours and identifying micro and macro trends like aging populations and urban growth. The insights gained from listening to peoples’ needs are ready to be applied to future solutions.

In addition to working closely with customers, the entire company has opened up new ways of working with suppliers, and that is an integral component of co-creation at IKEA. About six or seven years ago, the company started inviting suppliers to collaborate in order to create better products through improved form, function, quality, sustainability and cost. Now our suppliers are a more integrated part of the early product development process.

We’re also continually gathering knowledge about other cultures as we enter into new markets. For example, we know so much more about China and India now that we have more of a presence in these countries. These learnings are shared throughout the company and continually influence our product development process.

The co-creation process

As you can imagine, it can be quite the challenge to harness very divergent ideas and the myriad of creative ideas that comprise the co-creation process. That’s where people like Ian Thompson step in to help.

Ian Thompson

Ian has spent 18 years working with a human-centric approach to design and believes in putting peoples’ needs at the heart of the product development process. He’s been working on integrating the philosophy and methodology of co-creation into all of our product development teams.

While focused on human-centred design in the co-creation process, the trick for product development is to identify the problems people face today and project them forward to the needs of tomorrow.

“There’s a famous saying attributed to Henry Ford,” says Ian. “He said, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’ You have to look beyond what people are saying and look at what the need is. And then because we are the experts, we can look at the needs more deeply and understand where to create value.”

Real world examples of co-created solutions

One example of approaching problems from a broad perspective is based on an IKEA study on “sleep.” There are so many factors that influence how well people sleep: from lighting to circadian patterns to age to their home environment. Sleep is also affected by stress levels and by the number of family members (and their ages).

So, while we make very good mattresses, they are not the complete solution to getting a good night’s rest. Instead of coming up with solutions based on a product level, like mattresses, the team used this study to dig into the concept of sleep, to identify problems with a deeper and broader perspective, and to come up with solutions that addressed these learnings.

Another example of a co-creation solution is reflected in some recent work done around the concept of Fluid Lighting. Lights are something you turn off and on, right? Yes, but when you approach the concept of light fixtures from a human-centred perspective, you quickly adopt a new way of looking at them. Instead of starting with how a light fixture looks and functions, you start with understanding human activities and needs. These needs are then explored through what we call, “problem statements.”

“In a busy home, activities happen everywhere and having the right light at the right place is a problem.”

“Home for me is two different places but buying two of everything is not practical.”

Starting with these (and five other) problem statements, our co-creation community worked on finding solutions to these commonly stated problems. The ideas were clustered and then fed into an offline workshop with the product development team and designers.

“The collaboration process is quite easy,” says Johan. “In the early stages of dialogue we’re not looking at the design yet, we’re looking at the problem statements, which are basically the challenges and frustrations people experience.”

Exploring the problem statements with the community gave a lot of new and unexpected insights into what people really find frustrating or challenging when it comes to lighting in their homes.

The product development team then built on those ideas and insights to create low-level prototypes, such as the one below, sharing them back with the community for feedback.

One of the rapid prototypes from the fluid lighting workshop.

This philosophy of putting people’s need first, of being curious, and collaborative, and willing to try new ways of working is built into the cultural DNA of IKEA: It’s all about creating a better everyday life for the many people.

“It’s interesting,” says Ian, “when Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, was around he was always asking questions. This way of working is about recognising the value of that and remaining an inquisitive company.”

Top: photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash