I took my graduate students to Walmart. Don’t judge.

Everytime I write an paper about user-experience design, I try to illuminate the main concept by comparing Ikea and Walmart.

So, it made sense to me that instead of talking about this comparison in my graduate course in “Space, Technology & User Experience,” I would utilize the actual spaces to make the comparison for me.

Launching a discussion in Walmart (photo courtesy Ashleigh Farley)

My students and I met at the Charlotte Ikea for our Monday evening class and then processed across the parking lot to Walmart to make the comparison.

Cooley (2000) discusses nine principles of human-centered systems:

  • Transendence
  • Engagement
  • Malleability
  • Purpose
  • Ownership
  • Panoramic
  • Responsiveness
  • Inclusiveness
  • Coherence

These principles suggest key ideas that designers of human-centered systems can implement to ensure a quality user experience. I’ve been using this framework in my own writing to make the case that architects and designers of built spaces could consider these 9 principles as they develop spaces for a variety of purposes (see McArthur, 2011).

Investigating the navigation plan for Ikea (photo by Valerie Patterson)

To compare Walmart and Ikea, I asked students to choose one of the 9 elements of human-centered systems. Then, as they observed the 2 spaces, to make notes about the application of the concept to the space.

All the students were quick to notice that Ikea controls the shopper’s path, while Walmart allows shoppers to move through mutliple routes. Others noted that Ikea’s displays invite shoppers to experiment with the products on display, while many of the items in Walmart remain in their original packaging.

Some noted Walmart’s emphasis on making the prices of items highly visible compared to Ikea’s subtle tagging of items.

Still others considered the shopper’s experience based on wayfinding displays. Ikea had maps and directional arrows whereas walmart employed aisle markers and section signs.

Both of these spaces are similar in their architecture, but different in the experience they create for shoppers. Our next challenge will be figuring out how digital technology can play a role in making those experiences even better.

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