Weapon 3: The Allen key
I’m quite the fan of hypotheticals, and one of my favourites goes a little like this:
If you discovered a time machine and could go back to any point in history, what period of time would you choose?
When I ask this hypothetical, some people give deeply moving or considered responses. They speak of wanting to seek the forgiveness of a long-gone friend. Or of becoming time travelling tourists so they can witness the birth and slow decline of empires. Me? I’d like to travel far enough back in time so that when I made a Pavlova, it’d be the very first Pavlova ever made. Why? Well, it’d no longer be called a Pavlova then; it’d be called a Newton.
This logic could just as easily be applied to any product bearing the name of its inventor or muse. Like Tupperware. (Newtonware?) Or Gore-Tex. (Newton-Tex?) Or the Allen key, that staple of Ikea flat-packs. (The Newton key?) On second thoughts, maybe not the Newton key; would you really want your name attached to a device that, when paired with flat-packed furniture, has brought untold misery to the world?
The funny thing about the Allen key is that while it has the potential to spark marital discord, it can also be a source of competitive advantage for firms. Some of these advantages are relatively obvious: flat-packed furniture passes the cost of assembly onto consumers while simultaneously making transportation more efficient. (As anyone who misspent their teenage years playing Tetris will know, empty space is wasted space, and there isn’t much empty space in a shipping container filled with flat-packs).
But there’s another, more subtle, effect we may not be aware of: when we assemble flat-packed furniture, we’re also indirectly increasing our liking for that furniture. Given that flat-packed furniture is almost synonymous with Ikea, it’s perhaps fitting that this process has become known as the Ikea effect. So let’s pull up our sleeves, pick up our Allen keys, and explore how this process works.
As you’d expect, the first study to examine the Ikea effect did so using Ikea flat-packs. That study, which was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, found that participants placed an astonishing 63% greater value on an Ikea box they had personally assembled relative to an identical Ikea box that had been assembled for them.
Now, the researchers who conducted this study may have recruited a group of people that just really liked to make Ikea boxes. The researchers therefore examined whether this effect occurred when participants were asked to co-create other products. They asked some participants to fold origami frogs and cranes. They asked other participants to build Lego sets. In each instance, participants were found to attach greater value to the product they had assembled over an equivalent product that had been assembled for them.
If we spend a moment considering this finding, we realise it’s actually pretty counterintuitive. In most situations, humans will choose the path of least resistance by selecting the less effortful option, and this is doubly so when there’s no discernible difference in the outcome of that choice.
So why do we place greater value on something that we’ve had to put extra effort into creating? To answer this question, the same researchers conducted another set of studies. That research, which was published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, found that people preferred products they’d assembled themselves because those products allowed them to demonstrate and affirm their own competence.
Think about it. If we've had to work a bit to assemble a product, we’ll probably end up feeling pretty good about ourselves when we finally succeed in putting it together. And because that product made us feel positive about ourselves, we'll end up placing greater value on that product.
That perceptions of competence make us prefer products we’ve assembled suggests that there’s a natural limit to how far this effect will extend. For example, if it becomes too easy to assemble a product, our feelings of competence won’t increase by assembling it. The introduction of instant cake mixes in the 1950s lends some support to this claim. Initially, Americans were reluctant to use such mixes because it seemed to make cooking too easy, thereby devaluing their skills and effort. When these mixes were rejigged to require the addition of an egg, however, sales soared.
Product designers looking to make use of this effect will therefore have an unusual aim in the back of their minds: make the assembly process easy, but not too easy. Perhaps that explains why Ikea instruction manuals seem to make everything appear unnecessarily complicated…