Simon Harriyott

Flat-packed Software

I bought my son Toby a new bed from Ikea, and assembled it one evening earlier this week. Thinking about my previous adventures with flat-packed furniture, I opened a bottle of wine and put on some mellow jazz beforehand, in an attempt to limit the stress.

On the whole, everything was as it should be; all the components were present, the instructions were in English and had plenty of pictures, and an hour later I felt like a skilled carpenter. There was only irritation; the bolt-holes for joining the legs, frame and head-board were slightly too small, so I had to line up three pieces of wood and bash the bolt through with a hammer. It worked, but not at exactly 90 degrees (and it did create some sawdust). However, I'm sure Ikea put a lot of time into usability testing, and have already ironed out several problems that I didn't have to deal with.

There seemed to be four options for buying a bed:

  1. Buy some planks of wood and some screws, and make it from scratch
  2. Search for a second-hand bed
  3. Buy a self-assembly bed
  4. Buy a brand new bed, and have it delivered and installed

I have sorted the list in ascending order of cost, which also happens to be descending order of time investment. Most people have either plenty of time and little money, or lots of money and no time. A few lucky people (e.g. aristocrats) have money and time in abundance, and a few unlucky people (e.g. new parents) have little of either, but mostly people have one or the other

Software is like buying a bed. I use some expensive but time-saving software, and some dirty freeware applications (like my spam filter) that need constant tinkering with, and guessing what the buttons do. I remember when notepad had non-standard shortcut keys, so Ctrl-S didn't actually save the file, and Ctrl-F didn't produce the search box. It was frustrating, but it saved me buying a proper editor.

Writing software is the same. Usability takes time to write, and time to test, and makes development more expensive. Quoting from Ikea's "how we're different" page:

It's not easy combining good design and good function with the right quality, at an affordable price. But then we aren't known for taking the easy way out. Designing a desk that costs a fortune is easy. But designing something that's affordable to many - only the truly talented designer and product developer can do that.

8 September 2004