With Timothy Embretson Global Vice President of Experience Design and Karolina Boremalm, Global Head of Design Operations at IKEA Retail (Ingka Group)
Timothy Embretson is Global Vice President of Experience Design and Karolina Boremalm is Global Head of Design Operations at Ingka Group, IKEA’s largest retailer. In this episode, they discuss how they are leading a digital transformation at a major global retailer. Scaling the design organizations and helping to make the special in-person IKEA experience just as delightful when a person is shopping online.
ALFONSO DE LA NUEZ:
Welcome to UXpeditious! A show that brings you quick, insightful interviews with design, product, and UX leaders.
In each interview we dive into how UX research impacts user insights; shaping the design and business strategy of some of our favorite tech tools and products.
I’m Alfonso de la Nuez, Chief Visionary Officer and Co-Founder of UserZoom.
And I’m Dana Bishop, VP of Strategic Research Partners at UserZoom.
And we are your hosts.
Who doesn’t love the Billy bookcase from IKEA? I know I do; and I'm not talking about functional, stylish furniture, just for the fun of it. Joining us on this episode we have two guests from IKEA; Timothy Embretson, Global Vice President of Experience Design and Karolina Boremalm, Global Head of Design Operations, Digital Experience Design.
We’re talking with Timothy and Karolina about ecommerce business and how design and research operations have scaled and grown at IKEA over the past few years.
Thank you so much Tim and Karolina for joining us today. Can we start by introducing yourselves please.
Thank you, Alfonso. Thank you, Dana. Timothy Embretson and I lead the experience design team here at Ingka Group, IKEA's largest franchise. That means I lead a global team of nearly 300 people across product and UX design, visual design, service design, UX design and research, strategic design, data experience design, content strategy, content design, design ops, research ops, design system, and inclusive design as well.
DE LA NUEZ:
Quite a task.
My name is Karolina Bormalm and myself and my team belong to the Design Operations and it is one of the design teams led by Timothy.
IKEA, what a brand, what a retailer, that so many of us, including myself, love. There has been so many shifts in how we do business since the pandemic. And, of course, IKEA is going through this digital transformation. IKEA is a huge company that has this huge offline experience. And so, can we start by talking a little bit about how IKEA has shifted to an e-commerce business? And I know how much the company's invested in design and research,
At IKEA, our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. With an emphasis on those with thinner wallets. Before the pandemic, but certainly amplified through the pandemic, we are on a journey to bring IKEA even closer to our customers. We welcome billions of customers across all of our touch points, but we definitely have higher ambitions to meet many more. And so, for us, it's about finding the right mix of experiences, physical and digital and remote to meet our customers where they are. Giving our customers the best of both physical and online retailing.
A big part of developing that was developing the digital organization, which is now a little over three years old at Ingka. And we're three years into that journey and we're two years into the journey to build the first ever in-house experience design capability. When I joined three years ago, we were a team of 10 of us and now we're a team, globally, of almost 300 across a wide variety of disciplines. So, there was very early understanding, belief and support from our Chief Digital Officer and our CEO, that design was a unique differentiator to drive the experiences across all of our touchpoints.
That investment is working well. For FY 22, digital contributed 25% of our total sales and it has grown significantly over the past several years, but we continue to find that right balance. In FY 21, we invested 3.2 billion in both physical and online retail operations to meet those changing needs. And so, we're well known for the big blue box. We're well known for the maze. It was just two years ago, though, that we started to release our app across all of our countries.
And in building the digital organization and the digital capabilities, we're really working to find that omnichannel experience for our customers. We're exploring new formats like planning studios that are much smaller than our stores. We're shifting the big blue boxes in some of our countries to be fulfillment centers.
And the experience design team is at the core of all of this. We are doing research and designing the app as well as our website, but we are bringing service design and research and strategy into the expansion of our new physical formats, as well. And our design team is also exploring the possibilities of where the business can go even beyond where we are today.
Yeah, and Timothy mentioned earlier. We're two years into this journey and we had and still have top leadership support, but one of the things that we struggled with is how to enable our design team to make that shift to become this experience driven company. And we are right now. I mean, it's only two years,
That's a very short time.
Especially for a company of this size where we need to support so many markets and so many ways of thinking about things and experiencing things. We are scaling that right now and we are 300 design coworkers. And when we started, I think something that needs to be kept in mind is that our needs were very, very basic. We needed to identify this common design language to enhance quality of our deliverables. And this was for example, the start of our design system, Skapa, which is probably quite well known by this time.
Our hypothesis at that point was that, if we unify our designers around a common design language and has the quality of deliverables and supply branded components and so forth, we would be able to enhance what we called the four Cs, which was content, craft, consistency and community. We wanted to create meaning in the context with visibility of what and why and how we create digital initiatives, large and smalls.
And with the craft, we wanted to ensure that there's access to information and tools and people to elevate the craft and unlock the ability to ship these, what we are aiming for, best in class experiences. And with the consistency, of course, having a point of view and source of truth to enhance that shipment and the digital world class goal. And then the community, right? We were only 10 people and now we're 300. So, there's an exponential growth over the last two years. And, of course, a lot of people coming in from different areas, different companies, different experiences, how do we align them to not be little, tiny islands of groups of people doing things, but a team?
So, that's been challenging. That's what we were looking for. And we did saw that if we improved these four Cs, as we called them, it became apparent that wasn't enough to just do that, to create a stable and scalability of this team. And with that, design operations was born because with all of these four Cs being expanded and being more solidified, there were so many other things that needed to come into place, like solid processes and messes for alignment and collaboration and exchange of knowledge and operationalizing the work, all of that. So it's been interesting. It's been a journey and it's still a journey which we're enjoying, most of the time, at least.
That's a big undertaking going from 10 to 300 in two years. So you've been talking about design and research ops and how that sort of played a role. I'm curious about what you've learned through this process of putting some operations in place.
Yeah, I think one of the biggest learnings is, it's really hard to shift into a streamlining and operationalizing a team of this size. There is so many stakeholders and so many minds to change and manage and so forth. Yeah, there's a lot of responsibility in understanding everybody's mindset and where they are in the maturity level to be able to shift. And we also see, in our teams, that maturity level is quite varying. In some teams it's very high and in other teams it's not. So, adapting the processes and the undertaking to that is quite challenging.
One of the things that I've learned through this journey of such rapid growth in a pretty extremely small amount of time was that, as designers, most of us feel pretty comfortable with the blank whiteboard or coming up with an experience or coming up with a strategy from scratch. There's a very big difference between the fuzzy edge of strategy for a concept or an experience and the fuzzy edge of building capabilities in an organization completely from scratch.
And bridging that requires very purposeful onboarding. It requires a lot of transparency in the interview process. It requires a lot of grace with ourselves as managers who are onboarding people, but also with coworkers who are joining our organization. I spend a lot of time, now, meeting with the teams in a variety of different settings. And I remind us, my leadership team, myself and every coworker on my team, that we're really on a journey to bring competence into the organization for the very first time. And we have to have empathy with the organization. The organization does not really understand how to engage design in the way that we want to be engaged and that's not the organization's fault.
We have to lean into that empathy. We have to really focus on curiosity. We have to negotiate and approach things in a way that we may not want to. We have to give and take responsibility, which is one of our IKEA values. And that is how we grow design maturity. And that's how we've grown design maturity rapidly.
Even if I go back 12 months, we're in a completely different place than we were 12 months ago. But the fuzzy edge of strategy from a design standpoint versus the fuzzy edge of building a capability from scratch requires next level amounts of empathy with an organization.
It's about culture, it's about meeting with people, it's about enabling with the right tools, resources, vision I just think the industry, and to your point about working and collaborating with the organization that may not be familiar with this, sometimes I think design and UX research as well, sometimes we need to come a little closer to the rest of the organization to have them understand why it's so important versus it's been so many years in the past, a lot of people complain about not being understood, whether it's design or research. And I think that there's this big coming together somewhere in the middle, business people coming over, understanding and making an effort.
And I think one of the things that we, very early on, realized when we started building this team was that operationalizing and doing just what you're describing Alfonso, it's not something we can do without having our own ducks in a row first.
So, if we are looking from design operations perspective, we decided to, instead of being reactive to every little single task that was asked from the organization, we started looking inwards and looking at the culture and at the goals. The goal was to create a structure, process and principles and tools within operations that we could extend into the rest of the organization. And as we solidify that internal approach, we also start to establish structures going downwards, ways of working and identifying global needs and things that need to be done across XD and the rest of the organization to enable us to have that conversation with the rest of the company.
And that holistic view of what we want to do, that varies from team to team. And for us having that holistic view as one view and being able to communicate,I think Timothy also agrees with me, that's a challenge because even in our leadership, we are different people with different desires and different goals moving forward. So, going a little bit back to Dana, what you asked around the data driven structures, I mean, that is what we're putting into place now to try to enable the strategic direction from data implementing structures to practically assess or organizational maturity, for example, and point to which needs we need to address long term versus strategically setting up data measures to inform our priorities and allowing us to follow up on our progress.
All of those things did not exist when we were 10, 50, a hundred people. They still don't exist to some degree, but they are in the starting pit to exist. And we are evaluating, we're working through all of that grit to actually get there. And it's quite a lot of work, but when it succeeds, when we have some success stories, we see that even that hard work is worth it because it unites us and makes us more coherent outwards and delivering quality is important and being able to deliver the same message is also important.
As a researcher, I'm always thinking about how to create empathy for the user, for the customer, and we are focused on that. And something you said earlier about having empathy for the company and of its history and where it's come from and this new, sort of, world that you've come into and the new initiatives, is a very interesting perspective for me. And I think this is where business and research and design leadership really are having to better understand themselves and understand all of the nuances of the backgrounds and the point of views that we each come from. So, fascinating point of view there.
Absolutely. When I walked in the door three years ago, the team of designers that I joined, their request was, "We need a mandate, you need to get us a mandate." And I reflected on that for a couple of weeks and I was like, "Well, that mandate isn't going to change anything." That mandate isn't going to change the behavior. You could have the highest levels of the organization say engage with these designers, but that wouldn't drive the behavior change.
The behavior change comes from meeting people where they're at. And if they're asking for you to make something pretty, then that's an invitation. That's an open door. You make that thing pretty, you build some capital with that person or that team and then you track design maturity over time. But that's absolutely having empathy with the organization and the people that make up the organization on where they're at, what their backgrounds are, what their experiences are. And you will probably find people who do understand design and you will really latch onto those folks, but you'll probably run into, maybe, many more that don't and those are all opportunities to spread design as a way to innovate business.
Bingo, that's the lesson learned in this podcast. I mean, it's right there. Meet the people where they are and we're not just talking about external users or customers or... We're talking organization. That's the lesson right there.
And there is something around building the organization as well, because for us, it has been a journey in building our organization but also building the rest of the organization to understand who we are, what we can contribute to and with and how to work with us. So, all of that is also super important to remember. We don't just do pretty things and so forth. We can also design other areas with the human-centric design principles that we adhere to, which is something that is resonating, I think, with the rest of our organization. And it's becoming a more impactful topic of discussion.
We now have human-centric technology to adhere to, for example, that's one of our directions so, it is slowly developing and there's slowly being created an understanding for. Design is not a word that you need to fear and the design is not this fluffy person that you have that does cute marketing material or impactful movies or videos or whatever. It is, actually, designing other areas as well.
IKEA's shopping in-store in an IKEA is such a specific and great experience, one of my favorite things to do. Obviously now, people have been shopping online more. How are you thinking about keeping that unique IKEA experience in the digital experience? I mean, this is your big design question probably, right?
Great question. Dana, you were talking about translating the magic of the IKEA store, the feeling that people get when they walk into our physical store, whether they go through the showroom and through the maze or they go directly to the market hall when they know what they want.
We've also had 80 years, next year, to create that magical customer experience.
Yep. We know that checkout can be a pain for customers in any retail environment. And so, we're testing Shop and Go, a feature in our app in the majority of income markets for those customers who still want to come and enjoy our stores. We just launched IKEA Creative in the US market. So, it's a new AI-powered experience, empowering customers to create lifelike room designs. We're really trying to bridge our decades of IKEA life-at-home expertise and home furnishing expertise with the latest developments in spatial computing, machine learning and 3D mixed reality.
We also stopped producing the catalog a couple of years ago and we're into our second year of the IKEA Festival. So, it's a nine day event that takes place in IKEA stores and online across the world. So, we pick nine stores and they host a day packed with creativity, inspiration around 10 different topics, food, sports, gaming, music, dance, more.
We also are bringing live shopping inspirational content creators from around the globe onto social media and we need to bring that into digital channels, as well. So, this past year, we created a unique IKEA digital platform where you can watch the festival as it happens live from anywhere in the world and this platform was fully researched and designed in house by our experience design team.
So, we've had 80 years to really create that magical experience in the store. We're a couple of years into truly investing in creating the same magical digital experiences. So what I just shared are things that we're testing, things that we're trying and things that we're learning from, that we're constantly researching and iterating on with customers and improving. Your second question was kind of about the balance of where do we focus?
How much design efforts are focused on just sort of improving the digital experience versus really driving innovation and new technologies, embracing new technologies and innovation.
But I think with what we've introduced in the US market with the new AI solutions is us trying to dip our toes a little bit in, "How can we push the boundaries." And I think the 80 years of innovation that we have in the stores, they are really, really good and give us a lot of customer insights on how people expect to be met, but not always how they're expected to be met in a digital form. So, our research, to some degree, is focused on figuring that out so that we can push boundaries even further.
We've had a lot of legacy in terms of IT systems and platforms and such that we need it to figure out before we could move into more innovative spaces. But I think with the forming of our team and our function, this becomes more 'structured', maybe is the good word, because we want to research what makes sense and we want to make the decisions based on data and not on a whim of, "I think this is cool," or "This is what others are doing."
And yeah, there are plenty of things that others are doing, including AI solutions with Amazon and so forth, that are super innovative and super cool, but how do they fit in into the IKEA offering? That is also a thing that we're constantly trying to balance, right? Because we do have a rich history and we do have a rich offering and introducing novelty into that, requires us to, again, have our ducks in a row so it doesn't dilute the brand and it doesn't dilute the experience.
It's been a pleasure. I'm sure there's a ton of lessons learned for our audience. So once again, appreciate your time today.
Thank you, Alfonso. Thank you, Dana. Really appreciate the time today.
Thank you both. It's been a great conversation.
That was IKEA’s Timothy Embretson, Global Vice President of Experience Design and Karolina Boremalm, Global Head of Design Operations, Digital Experience Design.
That’s a wrap for season 2; we’ll be back with more insights from Design and User Research experts like Timothy and Karolina or any of our previous guests for that matter in season 3 starting early 2023.
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