The IKEA Problem: What Swedish Meatballs Teach Us About Development Crunch Time

Laura Sweltz, Director of UX Research and Strategic Initiatives

Article Category: #Design & Content

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I have a love/hate relationship with IKEA.  As I trek the many miles across the store, I’m excited to see so many great deals.  “OMG, I can get a TABLE for only ten dollars?!  What kind of magical place is this?”  I start piling end tables, picture frames, and bags of frozen Swedish meatballs into my big yellow IKEA bag like there’s no tomorrow. 

When I ultimately end up at the checkout, I’m always astounded by how my bag of seemingly inexpensive items somehow has a total price of several hundred dollars.  “How did this happen,” I ask my confused self.  If I didn’t pick up any big furniture items and all of these items are so inexpensive, why am I suddenly giving all of my money to IKEA?

This situation also occurs toward the end of many development projects.  Even if we’ve done a good job of controlling larger feature requests (we said no to that giant sectional, after all) and we think that we’ve set ourselves up for success, we get into crunch time at the end of a project and suddenly, the smaller features that we added along the way seem like a much bigger deal when viewed as an aggregate.

These smaller features aren’t an issue individually.  They’re typically simple enough on their own to not be a problem which is why, as we check in with developers throughout the planning and design process, we feel comfortable adding them in the first place.  But when you start combining the efforts of those smaller features — as well as the inevitable tweaks that arise through the iterative dev process — you may very well end up with an overwhelming amount of work.  If you’re trying to hit a firm deadline, you may realize that there’s too much to do and not enough time.

In an ideal situation, we would stop ourselves from adding these items into our designs in the first place (or at least not as many of them).  But we’re all human and our plans for what we thought we needed, what we thought we could implement, and what the total cost of all those features would be aren’t always accurate.  So what can we do when we find ourselves in this situation?


The first thing we need to do is review and prioritize the remaining features.  Then we can determine if any of them can be removed, postponed, or simplified.

Remove Features

That pack of frozen Swedish meatballs sure sounded like a good idea when you threw them in your bag.  You’re now realizing, however, that not only do you not have a kitchen to cook them in but you recently became a vegetarian.  Suddenly, they seem completely out of place.

We can get excited while designing and sometimes we add features that don’t really need to exist yet, if at all.  Things can change quickly throughout the design process as well and what was once important may no longer be so.  Don’t be afraid to admit that you were wrong about the inclusion of a particular feature or that the overall goals or direction changed along the way.  If there are any features that you can remove altogether, do so.

Postpone Features

Your new living room has all of the critical components.  Couch?  Check.  Table?  Check.  Lamp?  Check.  You really want to hang some artwork on the walls before the big housewarming party to bring everything together.  (Like really want to.)  But if you have to wait two weeks to hang up that artwork, is that really a catastrophe?

We have a tendency to turn nice-to-haves into must-haves.  Reassessing the remaining features and being honest with yourself about items that you can postpone until after the initial launch can help ensure that you hit your target date.

Simplify Features

You originally wanted to buy the end table with a drawer.  It looks nicer and provides a place to stash things.  The primary purpose of the table, however, was to have a place to set your drink on.  The end table without the drawer isn’t as nice but it will allow you to accomplish your primary goal and it’s less expensive.  You should get that table instead.

When it’s crunch time, you may need to find ways to take critical features and simplify them.  Boil down the feature to the primary purpose and see if there’s a way to achieve that in a less complicated way that can save development time.


As designers, we try our best to create designs that are realistic to build given the timeline and budget constraints (or at least we should try to do this).  Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to the original plan.  Certain items may take longer than expected or maybe you simply added too many small features.

While it is disheartening when you run into challenges at the end of a project, the most important thing is to focus on hitting the deadline with a functioning product that contains all of the critical features.  By working with the development team during crunch time to identify features to remove, postpone, or simplify, you as the designer can (and should) help make that happen.

Laura Sweltz

Laura is Viget's Director of UX Research and Strategic Initiatives. She works from our Durham, NC office, where she helps clients like Rotary International, AARP, and Time Life understand the needs and behaviors of their users.

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