UX: Putting a Chair Together

My son (16) put together a new chair for his home desk last night. It wasn’t very complicated, but he struggled with it for a few hours. This was his first attempt at putting together any kind of furniture. I didn’t help him because I wanted him to experience the feeling of trying to put something together on your own. At his age, I was doing that with custom computer parts and most people have struggled with an IKEA desk at some point.

He made a few mistakes. To summarize:

  1. He didn’t use an electric drill for the screws
  2. He tightened screws all the way one at a time rather than progressively together (all 75% tight and then tighten)
  3. He missed some key information

The third one is (in my opinion) the fault of the manufacturer and the people who wrote the instructions. Let’s explore the UX they provided him.

Instructions were terrible

Years ago, I took over the management of the Marketo Docs site. It took 2.5 years of hard work, but today it is the go-to resources for anyone learning about Marketo. it generally gets raves from users. I know first-hand how hard documentation can be.

The instruction sheet for this chair, however, was just awful. It was all in one page printed very small. They had two kinds of screws to use, one was shorter than the other. The picture did not help you understand which was which. They were labeled (i) and (j). What kind of sadist would use i and j as the symbols? They are nearly indentical in small font. And believe me the font was tiny.

Additionally, the pictures were so small, it was very hard to understand which holes the screws were supposed to use.

Contrast problems

On the panel that connects the base to the seat, there was a imprinted word “Front” on the metal. There was no reference to the word Front in the directions but if you got it wrong it was a serious error. The problem was one of visual contrast. You couldn’t see the word. It’s black on black.

Poor contrast with important information

He didn’t see this very subtle printing and ended up putting it on backwards. This should never even be an issue. All you need to do is make the screws in a trapezoid shape and it would become impossible to put it on incorrectly.

Contrast is always important for the human brain to understand things. I am watching the great show The Wire right now. They do a masterful job of contrasting two story lines to show how they are different and how they are the same. They will compare rich to poor or black and white and show how different the results can be.

Both the screw labeling (i/j) and printing on the base (front) both have contrast problems. In many products there are different objects that have similar names and mess up contrast that way as well.


I ended up having to help him finish the chair. I grabbed the drill and fixed it all in a few minutes. I think (hope) he learned from the process. He likes the chair and is proud that he built it.

This is the reason I love design. The holistic experience of most products is pretty horrible. It’s hard (still!) to install a simple printer. It’s hard to keep a plat alive. It’s hard to understand mortgage deals. It’s hard to pick the right kind of eggs at the supermarket. Everything around us is difficult. It’s up to the designers of the world to make it better.


Whatya think?