The wordless manual: ideal for an international company like IKEA . . . and users like me

billy.jpgStill getting settled in our new house.
We have a ton of books (just ask our movers) and have decided to set up a small library at the back of our large living room.

The Billy bookshelves at IKEA were just the ticket for this project. Steve measured the wall space, did the math, and then picked out 7 large units and 5 narrow ones from the warehouse on the bottom floor of IKEA’s Atlanta store. They were delivered Saturday and on Sunday we began assembling them.

IKEA is a Swedish company with stores all over the world, from Iceland to China to Saudia Arabia. Imagine the translation costs for each set of assembly instructions for the multitude of build-it-yourself furniture they sell!

No worries. They do it exclusively with pictures! Ikea instructions

Here are some examples from the 8-page assembly instructions for our bookshelves. Note the warning messages.  

All of IKEA’s assembly instructions use the picture format with large, clear line drawings. When text is required, it is written succinctly and appears in 14 languages.

These wordless instructions succeed because IKEA builds simplicity into their products from the get-go. A minimum number of parts. Similar brackets and screws for each product. They have to do this because most of their customers assemble them themselves.

We had the option of paying for IKEA to come out to the house and build the shelves for us, but our final bill would have been two times the cost of the furniture.
Ikea wordless instructions

Here’s a link to the entire booklet for the shelves we purchased. All the IKEA instruction booklets are available online.

Should technical writers feel threatened by this?

No, but it demonstrates how effective  illustrations can be in technical communication. An appreciation for and understanding of the appropriate use of pictures should be part of our toolkit.

Well, gotta go. We’ve got 9 more bookcases to build and 326 boxes to open and sort before our Thanksgiving guests arrive.

Ikea parts

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4 Responses to The wordless manual: ideal for an international company like IKEA . . . and users like me

  1. Mike Hughes says:

    The key is “These wordless instructions work because IKEA builds simplicity into their products from the get-go.” Technical communicators can add great value by getting more involved in design at the UI level. The best Help is the Help never written because the screen does it all.

  2. For the most part, I agree that IKEA’s wordless instructions work well. But I find the last cartoon one a bit odd. It seems to be saying: “If you are confused by the instructions, go back to the IKEA store and borrow a phone with a really long extension cord. Then you will be tangled but happy.” That doesn’t seem to be the most effective way to wordlessly communicate “Call for support if you need help.”

    What would be better? Maybe a “split screen” showing the user on the phone on one side, and a person with a headset on the other (with the label “IKEA” under that side)? I don’t know if that convention from old movies translates across cultures.

  3. Martha Stevens says:

    Sometime before IKEA came to us (at least here in Atlanta), Lego was making text-free documentation. Years ago, I was writing manuals for instruments that used a windows interface to control complex (and sometimes dangerous!) chemical and physical experiments. The engineering manager kept bringing in Lego instructions and asking me to make the doc more like that. That particular gap was unbridgeable, but I do think that whenever you can use a picture instead of words you’re ahead of the game.

  4. […] Lego Effect”. Holly Harkness blogged about The Lego Effect using a different example: Ikea instructions. The Lego Effect is the use of pictures for 100% of the documentation. Unless your product can be […]

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