Like An IKEA Bookcase

There was a talk by a professor visiting the CNM Department a few weeks ago that I wanted to attend but didn’t. It was about the simplicity in design of the Billy Bookcase, one of the best-selling products by IKEA, and how IKEA earns so much money making wooden furniture. I agree that IKEA does make an inordinate amount of money from selling very simple things. For instance, look at its on-site restaurant. The restaurant sells a pitiful variety of food, and yet each food product sells  like hotcakes. Everybody craves those Swedish meatballs for lunch. The meatballs cost as much as a complete meal, and yet I cannot fathom filling my stomach with just those meatballs.

One reason for the success of IKEA, and those Billy Bookcases, is of course its emphasis on simplicity and practicality (though it’s not all that practical; I heard that select IKEA furniture don’t fare too well in tropical climates). The bookcases are very no-frills, and it does seem from the situation of this day and age that the simplest most parsimonious products are also the most expensive. Compare the branded handbags from cheap ones found in a flea market and you’ll find that the one with more contraptions is often the latter. Strange, isn’t it? But it’s no secret that simplicity has its appeal. For instance, look at Tetris and Candy Crush. These are surprisingly addictive games, surprising because they work on such simple principles and concepts. Tetris is about turning mundane blocks, and Candy Crush is about swapping shapes such that identical shapes touch each other and are cleared. Candy Crush adds a theme to the game, with fancy designs and keywords that match the theme such as “sweet!” and “delicious!” but players know ultimately the way to play is easy to pick up and learn. And it has proven to be addictive. Newspapers have reported of people spending thousands of dollars of real money to get in-game boosters for it.

But the allure of simplicity is more than that. It may be the very simplicity that makes consumers think that it must be good in order to beat its more complex counterparts. Allow me to explain. IKEA’s restaurant sells very few varieties of food, as I said. And it’s because it sells so little, the products that it does sell become stand-outs. It can afford to pour all its energies and marketing into those meatballs. And because IKEA doesn’t waste any time or effort on other food products, people think that the meatballs have to be its chef’s recommendation, its brand food. And all chef’s recommendations are good. And so people flock to eat it. Another example is in Apple. Apple only has 1 type of computer, the iMac. It only has 2 types of laptops, the Macbook Pro and the Macbook Air. It only has 1 type of phone, the iPhone, and said iPhone comes in only 2 colours, black and white. In fact, I remember the white iPhone caused such a hullabaloo when it was released. The almighty Apple has released 1 more colour! We finally have a choice now! People like when they’ve nearly nothing to choose from. Research has shown, in fact, that when people are offered fewer choices, they take less time to make their choice and are also more satisfied with their choice later.

So what of complexity? What of complex computer systems and games? Everything seems to be produced with an eye towards intuition and “back to basics”. Words like “sleek”, which means “trim and streamlined”, and “no frills” all have an undeniable meaning. Simplicity is going to define the 2010’s.


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