Swedish flat-pack furniture manufacturer, IKEA has enjoyed global success since the opening of their first furniture store back in 1958. From their affordable designs, to the layout of their stores and their hugely popular in-store cafe, IKEA has created a world-renowned customer experience that applies psychology across the journey (read more about this here). But there is one feature of the IKEA experience that piqued the interest of top Behavioural Scientist Dan Ariely that can be applied to more than just flat-pack furniture. In a series of four studies, the authors identified the IKEA Effect, a psychological bias that causes people to place greater value on self-made products. In essence, the authors describe how labor leads to love.
An early example outlined in the paper, is that of packet cake mixes like Betty Crocker that took off in the 1950s. In an era where manufacturers were striving to minimise manual labour for their customers, by creating a cake mix that only needed to have water added. While using powdered egg in the mix made the baking quicker and easier, the product was not proving successful. Business Psychologists Dr. Burleigh Gardner and Dr. Ernet Dichter identified that customers needed to feel a sense of creative contribution, and recommended substituting the powdered egg for a fresh egg that bakers add themselves (Marks, 2007). This small addition of labor for the customer, gave a sense of satisfaction for contributing to the finished product whilst adding an element of ‘home-baked’ authenticity (Shapiro, 2004).
Similarly, IKEA’s flat-pack furniture tends to come with some assembly required, meaning customers have to invest time and effort to build their swanky new scandi furniture. Across four experiments, Norton, Mochon and Ariely (2012) consistently found that when participants were required to expend effort to assemble products themselves, this resulted in much higher valuations of those products. Interestingly, the participants rated their self-made products so highly that they would rival equivalent ones made by experts. So, although you might logically expect that the reduced production costs for manufacturers would devalue products that require labor from the customer, it appears that labour is in fact sufficient to alone induce liking.
How is the IKEA effect being applied online?
Now although we can’t get users to physically build something when we’re designing digital experiences, here are 3 ways that the IKEA Effect is being applied online to shape user experiences.
Creating a profile
The early interactions a customer has with a brand are highly influential in shaping their subsequent behaviours and expectations. It therefore provides an excellent opportunity to gain commitment and increase the perceived value of a service. Apple Music uses this strategy in their onboarding process, asking users to make active decisions about the type of music they dislike, like and love. Providing users the opportunity to make those decisions and commitments, will lend itself to enhancing the perception of value as users feel like they have helped shape their experience, forming a profile that represents them and their tastes.
One of the ways we can encourage users to invest time and effort online, is to allow them to create lists and save favourites. The streaming service Netflix does a great job of facilitating this behaviour on their website, encouraging users to ‘Add to my list’. Allowing users to curate their own list of content increases the amount of effort users expend on the website and will serve to increase the perceived value of the content.
More and more, apps and websites are offering users the opportunity to create avatars (cartoon-like versions of themselves) that represent them in their digital experiences. Research shows that when users identify with their avatar in game environments this significantly influences their loyalty (Teng, 2019). That’s why apps like Bitmoji and Memoji showing such a huge degree of success, as users show an increased level of psychological ownership over the experiences. So while assigning users random avatars like animals or using their initials can be a great start, actively encouraging users to create something of their own that they identify with, will enhance their perceived value.
Although an exceptional experience is often thought to be synonymous with an effortless experience, behavioural science suggests that may not be entirely true. Norton, Mochon and Ariely (2012) have proven that requiring effort on the part of the customer can, in fact, enhance value perceptions to the point where we view our creations as comparable with that of experts. When designing a user experience, it's important to consider how we can get customers invested in the experience, by providing an environment that encourages active participation so that their labour can lead to love.
Marks, S. (2007). Finding Betty Crocker: The secret life of America's first lady of food. U of Minnesota Press.
Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of consumer psychology, 22(3), 453-460.
Shapiro, L. (2004). Something from the oven: Reinventing dinner in 1950s America. Viking Press.
Teng, C. I. (2019). How avatars create identification and loyalty among online gamers. Internet Research.