The IKEA Effect in Software Development

Jul 25, 2021

I'm writing this as I'm awaiting our estimated 9 am to 9 pm delivery from IKEA. I'm a huge proponent of IKEA furniture - it's cheap, easy to assemble, and relatively high quality. Wait. Am I under the spell of the IKEA effect?

The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias in which people place a disproportionately high value on products that they partially created.

When we put something together, we change our relationship with the product from recipients of value to co-creators of value. It taps into the fundamental human need for efficacy, knowing that we can affect the things around us.

The IKEA effect may have been discovered in the physical world but is just as prevalent in the digital one. While we might assemble IKEA furniture every few years, software is constantly being created and modified by those around us.

Here are a few different ways that the IKEA effect finds its way into software development.

Not invented here (NIH) syndrome. The tendency to avoid using off-the-shelf technology and instead of building it yourself. Google is the biggest offender of not invented here. Google reinvents everything: a build system, deployment system, version control, and even communication protocols like protocol buffers. I'm guilty of this as well (maybe a holdover from my Google education) - I usually avoid existing frameworks and prefer to code most things from the ground up. The extreme version of this is rejecting good ideas that were developed somewhere else while promoting internal and possibly inferior ideas.

Interactive onboarding. The more we feel like we've created something, the more likely we are to stick with it. Templates, demos, and customization in the onboarding flow can drive activation. If you look at the onboarding flow in applications like Notion and Airtable, they have specific steps that make you feel like you "made it your own."

Open-source. When we can contribute to open-source projects, we value them higher. Community is the current buzzword for startups, but what if it was just about making something your own? When I worked on open-source, I found that when I provided opportunities for more people to contribute, such as non-technical folks, the project flourished.

But there's a limit to the IKEA effect. When we can't finish building something and are too challenged, the IKEA effect disappears. When we when destroy something that we've created, the effect disappears.

So, as Marc Andreessen says, IT'S TIME TO BUILD.