13 insider secrets to create amazing IKEA-ish manuals
You have spent months, or even years, on the development of your super user-friendly product. Or you have sourced a product and imported it to sell it in your webshop.
But the user manual still sucks.
And you don’t want that your user is having a bad customer experience when struggling with your manual when getting your product ready for use..
You would like to have an easy to understand manual,.. just like IKEA.
Or even better.
But how do IKEA’s designers get to their famous manuals?
Do you wonder what the IKEA secrets for a user friendly user manual are?
In this post I will reveal IKEA’s untapped secrets for creating awesome instructions, so you know how to create yours.
- Do not illustrate your manual
If there is to mention one major thing that really distinguishes IKEA manuals from other manuals and that desires the number one position in this post, it is that they are incredibly continuous.
This is not being achieved by illustrating the drawings based on photo’s or free drawing techniques.
However, IKEA’s illustrations mostly are created with the original 3D technical drawings. Tweet
In order to create similar drawings, make sure you have 3D models of your product available. If you don’t have them, for example because you simply imported the product, you can easily have them created using freelancers on platforms like Upwork.
For creating the 3D model, make sure to send your freelancer very clear photo’s of all details and moving parts that are important to explain the use of your product in the user manual.
When your 3D models is ready, use 3D software (more about this at 5), specifically built for creating illustrations for technical communication, to create comprehensive illustrations.
IKEA illustrations always use the same perspective and view. Tweet
With the right 3D software you can set the desired perspective and view and use it for every illustration over and over again.
Designers take pains to render each successive picture from a single, unchanging point-of-view (mimicking that of the customer), so that confusing rotations or perspective changes are minimized and the customer can stay oriented more easily as he or she moves back and forth between the booklet and the parts [source].
The rational and comprehensible user manuals can only be created by a high level of precision.
Fig. 1 - Notice how IKEA always uses the same perspective and view
- Make use of distinctive colours
Although IKEA manuals are famous for their black and white appearance, IKEA smartly makes use of the colour-coding in their products.
This starts with a smart product design.
When colours play an important role for being able to install the product correctly, IKEA makes sure a coloured image is not necessary by coding the colour in the products.
Let’s have a look at IKEA’s products that require electrical installation. Quite important that you know exactly how to connect the electrical wires, don’t you?
Where the wires of many products are for example uniform brown, blue or black, IKEA adds an extra coding, like a black line or a spiral-shaped design.
In this way,the coloured wires can be distinguished even in a black and white user manual.
Fig. 2 - Notice how IKEA uses colour coding in their wires
- Add text to the user manual
An image does not need to be translated and an image says more than 1000 words. That are the main reasons IKEA hardly uses any text in their user manuals.
I can hear you asking, “Do they use text at all?” Yes, they do!
Although for most IKEA products only the installation needs to be explained (and not how to use the product) and because it mostly are modular low-risk products designed for mass production (more about this at 11 and 12), text most often is not strictly necessary. For some products it however is a must.
Text increases the safety level at installation steps that contain a higher level of risk, for example during electrical installation.
Also any other warnings against residual risks during the complete product life cycle mostly can be added in text.
And where installation steps mostly can be explained with illustrations only, explaining the use of a more complex product still needs some textual support.
Fig. 3 - Situations where even IKEA uses text
- Avoid a comic-story kind of approach
Although IKEA manuals very much look like a comic story, telling a story with a user manual should absolutely be avoided.
Think in topics when creating your user manual! Tweet
Topic based communication in technical communication is a modular approach of content creation. In this approach, all content is structured around topics.
A topic always has a well definied beginning and closing. At the closing of a topic, a certain task has been completed. This has some huge advantages.
By structuring around topics, (parts of) topics can be mixed and reused in different contexts.
The opposite of topic-based authoring is narrative content, written in the linear structure of written books.
An example of a topic-based approach, one illustration could describe only the following task:
- Use a screw driver to attach all 14 screws (article number 118331).
Especially with using the same views all the time, this means that (parts of) illustrations can be reused throughout the manual, or even throughout other products.
IKEA mainly thinks in topics and reuses content for their ballooning and for the several variants of certain products, like the Billy closet.
For being able to think topic-based in your illustrations, a high level of product standardisation is required (see 11).
Fig. 4 - Reuse of illustrations
- Use the right tools (to #1)
With the right 3D software you can create comprehensive illustrations. With these tools you can set your perspective and views to create consistent illustrations and assure consistency for all future publications.
I think Solidworks Composer is by far the best tool to use to bring the desired level of branding in your company's instructions.But also Inventor, Google Sketchup Pro and Blender might do the job for you. Most tools allow you to set line thickness, shadows, colours et cetera.
Whatever software you use, make sure to export your drawings as vector images.
Additionally, it is very useful to have Adobe Illustrator to edit your illustrations. In illustrator you can also add numbers, call outs and other stuff, if you did not do this already in your 3D tool.
Fig. 5 - An illustration made with Solodworks Composer
- IKEA style works best for flat packed installation products
An average user manual contains safety warnings, installation instructions, instructions for use and often some troubleshooting and maintenance information. But not most IKEA manuals.
This is because IKEA’s products mostly are flat packed products. The idea of selling flat pack and self-assembly furniture came to IKEA by accident in 1953. When Gillis Lundgren, after a photoshoot for the new IKEA mail-order magazine, took off a table’s legs so it fitted in his car, IKEA’s founder Invar Kampard got his big idea.
Transportation and assembly were the most extensive costs of his business. Unassembled furniture could lead to significant cost-savings. By 1956, flatpack and self-assembly became the hallmarks of IKEA’s furniture designs. This revolution in furniture land eventually led to the need for IKEA’s distinctive user manuals.
And because most IKEA’s products are not so complex, they don’t need any safety information or a chapter explaining how to use the product. As a result the installation takes most place in the user manual, of not all.
So if your ultimate goal is to provide your product with an IKEA-ish manual rather than anything else, what you need ideally is a flat pack product that needs to be installed,
Fig. 6 - The Lovet table from the original IKEA catalogue in the 40s that triggered the flat pack trend
- Begin with a promise
IKEA manuals start off with a promise: the end result. When buying at IKEA, you often dedicate your evening or Saturday afternoon to build your recent purchase. By directly visualising the end result at the start, the user gets confident that he will complete his task successfully.
Fig. 7 - IKEA’s big promise at the start of the manual: the end-result
- Give users more confidence
Some MacGyvers might even not need the instructions at all in order to do the job, there also are users that are a bit less confident.
So what does IKEA do? They give al the non-techies the idea that there is always a wise, big-nosed MacGyver, who they can ask for help by giving him a call.
And although IKEA does NOT provide a phone number, this little trick seems to work really well psychologically..
Fig. 8 - Need for help? IKEA is there to support you
- Modularity works well
Again, a good manual starts with a smart product design Tweet
Many IKEA products are built according to a modular approach. Take IKEA’s IVAR cabinet for instance. This piece of furniture is broken down into modules which customers can reassemble just by following an 11-steps instruction.
I am not saying that you should design modular products only, but because of modularity many IKEA instructions can stay concise.
Fig. 9 - Need for help? IKEA is there to support you
- Design a product for mass production
When assembling a piece of IKEA furniture, there is just one single design outcome. And that is one that the company has designed to be cheap enough for mass production. Mass production means a simple and fully engineered design. And simple designs mean simple instructions.
The more your product is engineered for mass production, the more comprehensive your user manual can become.
Fig. 10 - IKEA factory
- Use corporate guide lines
Consistant illustrations determine for a large part the look and feel of your manual. However, in order to create ultimate consistant manuals, you would use corporate guidelines for your instructions.
These guidelines include elements for the brand design, the logo, a specific font and colours. When using text, also consider to use guide lines for the language (American english or British english?), the tone of voice, the system of measurement, how do differnt types of infromation look like (e.g. warnings, instructions, tips) or when to use various types of highlighting (e.g., bold or italics type).
Fig. 11 - IKEA instructions are so iconic that they have been copied for several purposes
- Know your target audience
Knowing your audience maybe rule number one when designing instructions. Different users use different jargon and not every user has the same knowledge level.
When you sell your product worldwide, the least you should do is translating your instructions to the language of your target country, so your audience can read them.
Besides this, you should be aware of the basic knowledge of your user. This is something IKEA is aware off really well. They manage cultural differences.
IKEA sells their products on every content and with affordable furniture they target the majority of the people living there. Taking into account the basic knowledge of ‘world civilians’, it is IKEA’s mission to create instructions that are understandable for everyone.
So when designing your instructions, don’t think everyone is just as smart a you. Create easy-to-understand instructions without giving the user the idea that he is stupid. Choose for a step-by-step approach rather than putting too much information in one illustration.
- Put the product together yourself.
So you think you can design the best instructions ever now? Think again.
When your first version is ready, test your instructions by installing the product with help of them. Do this yourself, but also set up a user research. Analyse the results, optimise the instructions and repeat this process over and over again.
There is just one end result possible. Make sure that the user can’t have any doubt on the way towards to that process.
Your user deserves a great user experience at every stage of the customer journey.
And after spending all those time on a great product, you also want to give him a good experience when consulting the user instructions.
Imagine a user being able to install or use your product without any help from customer support.
Imagine a user manual that contributes to a better user experience.
Imagine a user manual that is just as awesome or even better than IKEA’s instructions.
You can achieve this!
In order to do so, follow the steps as described in this post and your users will be excited when installing or using your product with your stunning user manual.
About the Author: Ferry Vermeulen is a world-now tech comm expert who helps brands to create compliant and user-friendly instructions and technical documentation. Download his free guide 20 Ways to Create Compliant/User-Friendly Documentation.