Should Product Managers Allow Customers To “Hack” Their Product?

IKEA is designing products to be modified by their customers
IKEA is designing products to be modified by their customers
Image Credit: Lee Haywood

As product managers we believe that we are reasonably smart people. We know what our customers want. That means that we work with our development teams, design a product development definition, and then we create products that will solve problems for our customers. However, I think that we can all agree that we don’t know everything. Is it possible that our products could be used in ways that we can’t even imagine? It turns out that the answer is yes and the people who can show us, of course, are our customers.

The New Ikea Sofa

Just in case there is anyone out there who has not bought anything from Ikea before, perhaps a quick word of explanation is in order. Ikea is a Swedish furniture manufacturer who has worldwide distribution of their products. That accomplishment would look good on anyone’s product manager resume. The furniture that they make is unique in a number of differ ways. First, they give everything Swedish names (FYRKANTIG, GRÖNKULLA, and SPARSAM). Secondly, they design their furniture to fit neatly into small urban apartments. This makes it great for college dorms, rooms in houses, and just about anywhere. Finally, just about all Ikea furniture comes with “some assembly required” and so you’ll find a lot of people treating Ikea furniture purchases as the start of a project.

What’s interesting about Ikea furniture is that that their product managers are always keeping their eyes open to find out what’s going on in the lives of their customers. What they have been seeing lately is that urban populations are growing rapidly as more and more people try to live in smaller and smaller spaces. What this has meant for the Ikea product managers is that they have redoubled their efforts to make furniture that can maximize how people choose to use their limited space.

What makes Ikea furniture most interesting is that there is a “hacker” community that has grown up around it. Yes, Ikea sells you the furniture with the expectation that you’ll follow the directions that they give you and that you’ll create the chair or table that you bought. However, the hacker community has a different thought. The hackers use the internet to provide instructions on how you can customize the Ikea furniture that you’ve bought to fit a particular space. Or perhaps you want to change its function entirely from time to time. It is with an understanding that people are doing this that the Ikea product managers plan on introducing their new Delaktig open source sofa.

How The New Ikea Sofa Changes Everything

The new Delaktig sofa has been created from the ground up to allow customers to experiment with how they want to construct / use it. Ikea is hoping that this sofa will create 3rd party providers who start to create complementary products that can be attached to the sofa (like a light) or that allow its use to be modified (turned into a bed). The Ikea product managers have never encouraged the furniture hackers, but at the same time they have never discouraged them.

The Delaktig has been designed to be customized. It has an aluminum frame and its base will be made from wooden slats. It will come in different sizes and it will have optional accessories including armrests, a headboard, and a sofa back. The aluminum frame is going to have a series of grooves that will allow the owner to use a standard size bolt to connect different things that they have made themselves. Ikea plans on getting involved in the accessory business for its sofa also. They will be selling a clip on lamp and a table and may introduce more accessories over time.

Ikea is encouraging the hacker community to come up with additional products for the Delaktig sofa. The product managers realize that the community can probably come up with designs that Ikea won’t be able to imagine. The Delaktig sofa is going to be able to be flat packed which will make it easier to take home. The goal is for the Delaktig sofa to last for its customers for several years. Ikea says that the influence to create the Delaktig in part came from the car industry that uses a common platform on which to build multiple models.

What All Of This Means For You

As product managers we’d like to think that we know our products fairly well. Based on our product manager job description we talk with our customers, learn what they want, and then we modify our products to best meet their needs. This is exactly what the Swedish furniture maker Ikea has been doing. However, a hacker community has grown up around Ikea furniture using it for purposes that the company had never imagined. Now the Ikea product managers are getting ready to introduce a new sofa called the Delaktig that has been made explicitly for the hacker community.

The Delaktig has been created to be modified. Just like other Ikea furniture, the Delaktig has been designed to fit into tight urban living spaces. It comes ready to be fitted with additional products. Ikea is going to be providing some of these extra products in the form of a light that can be attached and a table. The Ikea product managers are hoping that the hacker community will start to create additional products to go along with this sofa.

I believe that Ikea is moving in the right direction. Their product managers have realized that they don’t have to be the sole source of innovation for their products. The hacker community that loves Ikea products and spends time trying to come up with new ways to use Ikea products is a great resource to tap into. The Delaktig sofa is a first step in a new direction for Ikea. Let’s see how it goes!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that Ikea should invite the hackers to help them design products like the Delaktig?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

How do you get to work every day? If you are like most of us, you jump into a car and drive there. However, there are some people, product managers among them, who instead jump on their motorcycles and drive them to work. Over at the Polaris company, their product managers would like more of us to get around on motorcycles. However, what they are discovering is that more and more young people are not viewing motorcycles as their preferred means of transportation. Clearly these product managers now have a challenge on their hands and will have to change their product development definition. How can they convince the next generation that riding a motorcycle is what they want to do?