The IA of IKEA Stores

{Originally written in October 2001 as "Ramblings: The IA of IKEA Stores". Edited slightly here.}

Ever since I visited the IKEA store in Burlington, Canada earlier this year I've wanted to write about it. I mentioned this to a few friends and they all looked at me strangely -- "what would you want to write about a STORE for?"

It's true, it's an odd thing to want to do, but unless I was hallucinating they have an awesome information architecture going.

I've recently had the opportunity to visit their store in Rome as well, and surprisingly enough (or maybe not) it's just like the one in Canada. I felt as if I'd never left North America, except that all the labels were in a language I can only manage on the level of ", due kilos, per favore."

Someone (many someones, I suspect) put a lot of thought into the design of the store. I'm sure this is at least partially the result of all the research done on how consumers purchase (check out "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping" by Paco Underhill), although the circular-design, open-warehouse, consumer-friendly flagship IKEA store opened in Stockholm in 1965, so they've clearly been pioneers for some time.

But, my brain parsed what I was seeing as information and interface design.

As you walk in you are herded up the stairs and onto the second level. All their merchandise is laid out in context -- i.e., "what room of the house are you interested in?" If you're interested in bathroom items, the bathroom models have toothbrush holders, cotton ball containers, lamps, cabinets, towels, etc. right where you might want to see them yourselves. Of course, if you're looking for a specific thing -- "where the heck are the kitchen towels?" -- you don't need the second level, you need the first one. The first level is for those who know what they're looking for while the second level is for those not entirely certain what they're looking for...two key methods of information retrieval. (More on the first level in a minute.)

The most interesting thing about the second level is that you can only move in one direction. Arrows on the floor and signs at critical junctures indicate that you're moving through the store in a planned, straightforward manner. No need to panic -- this is on purpose.

In fact, it reminded me of being on a carnival ride. You strap yourself into a seat along with many others and get whisked off through the Fun House or the Creepy Castle. At one point, I tried to break with the flow and move in the other direction. Beware to those who try! You may end up getting trampled...or at least some annoyed looks.

It made me wonder if this one-direction-only scheme is possible on a complex, e-merchandise web site. I would guess that you could try and do this with large splash pages or graphics on the front page, but my hunch (borne out by both IA and usability experts) is that web users have less patience for one-size-fits-all organizational schemes than those taking a Sunday afternoon stroll with their families.

If you follow the herd of people entering the store (acting like sheep is desired) you don't even see the first level on entering. The first level is the marketplace -- this is where you encounter bin after bin of toilet plungers, pizza cutters and CD holders. These seem to also be roughly laid out according to the rooms in a house, and reminded me more of a regular department store. Arranged in a huge square, it was like browsing a large, iconic, scratch-n-sniff web index with interesting items in bold, i.e., the towering stack of bathroom mats.

All items are clearly labeled with a unique identifier, a style and strangely enough, the name of the designer of the style. I couldn't quite fathom why this was important. Perhaps they like to recognize their designers? Super. Then, later on, I found myself searching for styles similar to one I'd been looking at earlier, and realized that this was just another possible way of organizing their material. Similar to how clothing department stores organize their stock, e.g., Ralph Lauren, Liz Claiborne. Or, how a web site works best if it has multiple methods of access for users with different searching conceptions.

Having written this, I realize that there were things I didn't look at carefully enough. Does the store layout let you know when you're moving from, for instance, the bathroom areas to the kitchen areas? If not, is this on purpose? Are there any color schemes I missed? Do all IKEA restaurants serve yummy Swedish meatballs? And, hey, how does the IKEA web site match up with their physical store? (Another article altogether, obviously.)