Full disclaimer: I am a very happy Ikea customer, and I have spent endless hours walking along their aisles in search of the perfect match for an usually limited budget and some Bauhaus-ish/Scandinavian piece of taste and practical use. Ok, getting closer to reality, I spent some good hours when in company (i.e. girlfriend), while I have always tended to run through when I was on my own. I am not sure about the side-effects of these meanderings on my mood and relationship health, but well, furniture is here at home, in good use. Then Ikea is a Generation X cultural icon, and I am right there. When I ran into the small illustration about the “semidisposable Swedish furniture” in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X it has been a kind of epiphany, truly a moment of self-awareness (what a self you have, one might wonder). And I guess that there is an already large body of scientific literature about Ikea and business and strategy and design and culture and everything in between, and I have not checked it, so this is just my own immediate thinking, bla bla, and that’s the end of this too long premise.
Now, you might have seen the video here below. It’s about Uppleva, the new TV and furniture offer for the living room put forward by Ikea. It has had a broad coverage, so not need to talk about it in detail etc. The video itself is a very well done piece of communication I think; it would be nice to know who has authored it as well. It’s a promotional thing but really smart in conveying the context explored by the people behind the design and the all business initiative.
I read about Uppleva somewhere when it broke the news and pinned it on my Pinboard (yeah “pin it” to me is for super-functional “anti-social bookmarking” Pinboard first, not Pinterest, with all due respect for the wonderful Pinterest). Then I noticed on Twitter that Alberto D’Ottavi had a post about it, and we had a couple of exchanges on the topic there with him @dottavi and @evilelka (in Italian, here to credit people). Alberto’s post is in Italian but see here for some recent Alberto Dottavi posts in English at Forbes; second disclaimer: Alberto is a good friend of mine).
In short, as tweeted, I might be totally wrong but I feel like there is something not quite right about Uppleva. So, discussion.
People took good notice that Uppleva is more than the separate elements that made the thing. It’s more than a TV set, and it’s more than a standard TV cabinet or table. Alberto and others called it “a solution” – which of course is something that many want, as the increasingly complex lives of us are more or less always in demand of solutions (to more or less serious problems). And yes design does not want to stop at the design of things etc. (do not open that door! I agree on the general concept, but it actually raises so many more questions).
But what kind of solution is this? I’ll stick to the words of the Uppleva girl in the video. She says that according to research done “all over the world”, people are not at ease when it comes to their TVs placement in the living room, because TVs come with too much stuff around them, first audio boxes and set-top boxes and game consolle (but she doesn’t name them) and especially CABLES (she actually screams at that point), yes the cable mess we are so used to and that now could go away with Uppleva. And it’s not just cable-concealing. Ikea has also worked on the TV software / UI and on the remote, so that the integrated blu-ray and connected / smart TV features are all better accessible and easily usable and more enjoyable and everything, which I think it’s a very sensible effort and objective.
Now, there are still two or three interesting problems here to me, somewhat related, even though they are of different nature.
Let’s talk about CABLES first, as they have an unusual prime-time in this spot. Yeah they are not nice. It’s very true that they give that messy nerdy garage-like air to everything and some might think that this tech flavor is all so passé now that TVs are just a normal presence in our home environment. Say that their tech appearance, black electronics with blinking LEDs is out of place. Well, now let’s step back from the argument that tech flavor given by cables is passé, because I might not agree (nerdy electronics is a matter of love for many, perhaps rightly so!). The point is that Uppleva comes with a number of *ports* (USB and HDMI) that, guess what, are obviously done for the damned plugs and CABLES. So the nice picture from the catalogue might disappear pretty soon… CABLES again; not easy to get rid of them, definitively (of course I think that Ikea has very sensibly produced Uppleva with all these ports — my take is just on the cables disappearing and then coming back, really much like nasty snakes).
Let’s see the remote then. Here we have another typical classic case of design chaos in the living room. Raise your hand if you have never used a slide with a bunch of remotes in your UX presentation (third disclaimer: I think I did used one of these slides more than once, I confess). But here it comes the same point. Once you have plugged your extra stuff that is not already put into the integrated (integralist?) Uppleva you are back into square (slide) one with a bunch of pretty remotes, badly designed by unaware designers (whose houses have at least one Ikea piece I bet!). Point is, remotes are just one side of a bigger game and getting rid of too many remotes is as easy as solving the all issue of interactivity and television, which is still *huge* – I mean, even Apple, kings and priests of Design and User Experience in their Most Noble Forms, are still quite working on it… (not joking on Apple btw… they do great design of course etc. but it’s a fact that with TV they still have to find success etc.).
And what about more general or abstract qualities? What about the very notion of order and cleanliness and messiness that are at stake here? Because there is it, the Uppleva girl tells us that people around the world are tired of messy living rooms, full of nasty cable snakes. And how not to note that order is such a central concept of everything designed, from architecture to the universe? (I am talking about all things/intangibles that are artificially made, no implication about the fact that the “natural” universe has been designed ;) — Well the intriguing point is that the messiness of consumer electronics in the “home context” (scientific tone) might be at the heart of the all evolution of related technologies, something really central and inherent to the thing.
Take the argument of two top scholars. Even though I haven’t still managed to finish the reading (second confession, nth disclaimer!), Dourish and Bell recent book on ubicomp (Divining a Digital Future) outlines a vision of the real evolution of technology in which messiness is not a casual attribute or contingent nuisance. Quite the contrary actually: it stands really much as a distinctive aspect of an endeavor that progress by not planned competitive (techno-scientific I’d add) programs and additional layers, as it happens with many of the traditional infrastructures of the urban environment (think the networks of mass transportations for an analogy, or I’d say the city itself as an infrastructure for living). Can we remove this mess, if it is so rooted in the all thing? Or, how to deal with it? Perhaps the first question should be about the mess itself, its relation with technology, etc.
I’m afraid that messy ubicomp can not be easily stored in a cabinet. It doesn’t disappear in the background (or not yet), it’s not part of an integrated solution, because it can’t be (maybe it will).
One specific aspect of the latter issue is about design & industrial cycles I think. With consumer electronics and information technologies and especially everything digital, you often have cycles that are pretty fast, say 2 years and another game begins. I can’t see how it’s possible to match these cycles with those of the furniture consumption. What about my Uppleva wooden side in 2 years or 4? What will be the average TV size then? Furniture has a pretty long consumption curve, it just works for a long time until it breaks down (or one decide to dump it), while tech stuff goes up and down like on a rollercoaster.
Having said all of that, it’s a fact that Ikea has taken an interesting and new challenge here, so I’m very curious to see how the thing plays out. In the meantime, I’ll roll my cables on the bottom of my Ivar shelves.
PS if you wonder… according to Google Translate, Uppleva means “experiencing” (have to check with Swedish friends)