Man using a tabletop as a touchscreen at an IKEA

Ubilag: An Experiment in Pervasive Interaction Design @ IKEA


IKEA stores are well-known for being intentionally designed experiences. The experience is a strange combination of awe and frustration that somehow keeps us coming back for more. As graduate students, we wondered if there was something we could do about some of that frustration while keeping the IKEA magic intact. And it was also a great way to think about experience design in a fully interactive environment.

Goal: Design ubiquitous computing solutions for common pain points in the IKEA shopping experience.

Dates: Jan 2014 – May 2014 (4 months)

Target Audiences: IKEA shoppers, particularly frequent IKEA shoppers

My Role: User Experience Designer, User Experience Researcher as a University of Michigan School of Information graduate student


  • Learned techniques for applying user-centered design beyond phones, tablets and desktops
  • Learned techniques for evaluating ubiquitous computing prototypes and assessing user comfort levels with
  • Produced an “envisionment video” of our final iteration, showcasing a potential IKEA experience that generated excitement and praise from our instructor (we 4.0’d the class) and other project groups as well


First, we observed. Our group knew we wanted our ubiquitous computing project to involve IKEA but we didn’t yet know exactly how. So four of us spent the day doing some ethnography at the local IKEA (or passive participant observation, if you want to get technical about it). We assigned each other parts of the store we thought would yield interesting observations, observed and took notes for about 3 hours, debriefed over lunch, then traded areas and did the whole thing again with a final debrief over dinner.

People in an IKEA store looking at various looking at various pieces of merchandise

Then we brainstormed and did some light ideation. Based on the behaviors and pain points we had observed, could we think of any ideas right then and there that had some promise? These ideas didn’t necessarily have to be the things we would end up working on, any of them, but it was good to get the juices flowing.

A sketch drawing of an application that lets people preview how items may look inside their home
A sketch drawing of an application that lets people preview how items may look inside their home

We probed further. It was time to interact with the people we were designing for and get more information from them. We used a survey to assess the commonality of some of the behaviors we observed…

A snippet of a google form; text is unimportant

We put together a cultural probe kit for about 8 participants to help us understand how they feel about the IKEA experience and how that experiences affects their purchases and shapes feelings about IKEA as a brand…

An envelop that says "open me right away"
This envelope contained prompts for the participant as they went through the store. For instance, in the warehouse one asked them to “If something that makes you feel confused or frustrated, take a photo of it.”


All of this research was poured into an affinity wall. This helped us understand the ups and downs of the parts of the IKEA experience we were focusing on and let us flesh out some of our initial ideas into storyboards.

Sticky notes attached to a whiteboard showing a hierarchical organization of information

A 4-panel storyboard in which someone's smartphone is helping them plan out how to load their IKEA purchases onto a flatbed cart


We then tested our designs via user enactments. These are basically a cross between a  Wizard of Oz usability test and a dry run for a stage play. Ubiquitous computing designs play in real space and so to adequately test them out, the tests have to play in real space as well. I facilitated while other members of my group played the computer, updating the interface and issuing verbal responses in reaction to user behavior.

A user enactment in progress, featuring a participant manipulating pictures on a table that represent a theoretical interface
A participant manipulates pictures on a table that represent interface elements of the “magic table” we were testing.

After a final round of iteration, we brought the whole thing together in an envisionment video. (You could also just call it a “pitch”, I guess.) It’s no Chris Nolan film – really it feels a little like a kinder, gentler, (much) cheaper Black Mirror teaser – but it gets the concept across nicely.