MI 845- Brick by Brick

Brick by Brick

      How Legos have built up my interest in HCI and User Experience Design

      Legos (www.lego.com)

      What do an Imperial Star Destroyer from Star Wars, an aircraft carrier, a medieval castle, and a vast cityscape have in common? For me, they are all objects that I have created with Legos. I loved the freedom of creativity that Legos afforded me when I was a kid. I never really grew out of it, either. Children and Adults alike use Legos as a collaborative tool, a communicative tool, and as a method of creation and play (Kristiansen, 2008). Because I never grew out of Legos, I still have them laying around- and having them around has shaped how I think about user experience design and the UX design process.


       The UX design process is the method by which software and hardware is made more useful, usable, and delightful to use, including user research, sketching, prototyping, and iterating on previous design. UX designers seek to understand the context of users and to apply that understanding to a piece of software or hardware. We can apply the different ways that Legos are used to the UX design process, both metaphorically and literally.


Interoperability and Modularity.

      Legos are well designed objects, legendary for their longevity and sturdiness. All other interlocking brick building systems such as Mega Blocks have issues with the interlocking feature. Lego bricks all fit together, no matter what year they were produced (LEGO Group, 2010). The factories in which Legos are manufactured have very low tolerances when it comes to defects. Any bricks that have a deviation of greater than .002 mm from the mold are considered defective (Engineering 360, 2013). Because LEGO (the company is spelled with all capital letters, while their product is spelled as a proper noun) has such stringent quality standards, the bricks always fit together, and their bricks provide consistent and clear affordances for operability. It also ensures that all Legos are interoperable with each other, regardless of the age of the brick. Every brick that Lego makes exists on its own, and can be paired with any number of other bricks to create different objects. Interoperability is one of the key characteristics in which ties between Legos and UX design can be seen. Nowhere is it better demonstrated than in modular programming.


      Modularity is the established standard in modern programming. Modular programming keeps common pieces of code together to be used and reused for different projects (Torres, 2012). In the same way the Legos are interoperable with one another, every piece of modular code, regardless of when or why it was first programmed, can be made to work with any number of other pieces of modular code to create different programs. This is in contrast to programming methods prior to the 1990’s, which all called for each program to be built from the ground up. Before modular programming, It was normal for teams of programmers to design every aspect of the project they were working on sequentially; work on part B of the project couldn’t begin until part A was completed and approved, because part B relied on the code written in part A to function. Modular programming completely changed this. Modular programming is to coding as Legos are to constructing. Rather than gather multiple types of building materials, worrying whether they’ll work with each other, and wasting time, money and energy on creating something custom, Legos all work together and will connect to each other. The same can be said of modular programming; instead of coding by gathering multiple kinds of programming building blocks and worrying about whether they will work with one another, modular programming helps to make sure all pieces of a program function together. Every individual piece of a program is self-contained. A very simple example is a program that creates an html file with a click of a button. While it is possible that you could code the program so that it only takes one routine to create the file, you can also create sub programs that will pass along information from one sub program to another. If you and a friend were not using modular programming to create this application, only one of you could work on the program at any one time. If you were utilizing modular programming, you could work on one subprogram while your friend works on a different subprogram. Take this logic and expand it to a large project, like a video game or mobile banking application. Modular programming has clear benefits for teams. The other big upside to modular programming is being able to reuse chunks of code for multiple projects. Since each module is self-contained and not reliant on any other piece of code, they can be used across varying projects.  It saves time and allows programmers the freedom of developing novel uses for existing code rather than focus all their efforts on creating brand new code.



The innovation of users

      Legos can be purchased in one of two ways; in Creator packs or in special sets. Creator packs provide large amounts of very general building blocks with which you can create whatever you desire. Special sets are prepackaged specialty bricks (that also include some of the general bricks you can get in a Creator pack) that come with instructions to create a specific object. An example of a set is the Star Wars Imperial Star Destroyer mentioned at the start of this chapter. Since Legos all work together, sets are often torn apart and used in ways that the designers at LEGO didn’t intend. Even “special” sets like Star Wars, Jurassic World, and the more advanced Technic sets are repurposed. Some examples of projects that used Legos in unforeseen ways are: a rubber band gun (LegosEverywhere, 2013), a desk fan (Williams, 2015), a functional V6 engine (nicjasno, 2013), a pinball machine (AstonishingStudios, 2014), and even a working particle accelerator (Brickworks, 2014). There is a whole subculture of LEGO fans that have created novel objects that were not originally envisioned. UX designers must understand that they cannot predict every use case for every user. In May of 2016, two students at the University of Wisconsin Madison engaged in a flirtatious encounter through Snapchat’s Campus Story feature, which allows students at the university to post photos and videos to be seen by other students. The two people attempted to contact one another through Snapchat without knowing anything about one another, and eventually managed to settle on a time and place to meet up and go on a date (Moye, 2016). Snapchat’s Campus Story feature was not built to facilitate meet-ups like this, but two users found a way to use it anyways. LEGO provided suggestions for how to use their product, and they even included a system image for the user, but their use doesn’t end there. In the same way, an objects use shouldn’t end at where the UX designer’s imagination ends.


Lego as means of communication and prototyping during the design process.

      Legos are even being used today in the design process. In the professional world, where designers are mixed in with human resources, financial officers, and organization administrators, brainstorming and advocating for a thorough UX design process can become a tricky task. Designers are trained to use brainstorming times as a place to throw out every idea. Administrators are taught to only think in the realm of the “possible”. Is there an effective way to help them understand one another? LEGO has been shown to assist in the communication process within professional organizations, as Per Kristiansen describes in his paper about LEGO Serious Play (Kristiansen, 2008). Legos help to break down walls and let those who feel uncreative get involved in a tangible yet still creative way. Used in a Serious Play exercise, Legos can be directly used to allow input from wide ranges of professions, leading to a more thorough design process- the more ideas that are generated, the better the outcome is in terms of final design. One goal of UX designers is to integrate user experience requirements throughout each phase of the design process. Using Serious Play helps this to become a reality.


      Legos have even been directly involved in the design process. The creator of the hit video game series Metal Gear Solid was known to prototype game level layouts in LEGO before doing any programming, because of the ease of “editing” level layouts (Schramm, 2011). The creator, Hideo Kojima, was trying to find new ways to rapidly generate ideas for new level designs. Kojima, known to many as a pioneer in video game design, quickly thought about Legos and their ability to create 3D spaces that were easy to create and destroy. Legos brought the added benefit of providing designers and programmers alike a tangible view of what the video game levels looked like in his head.

      Legos can be used to help model virtual problems in real space. Legos allow researchers and users to use a non-technical object to create a model for a technical object. Legos offer an alternative to the standard research methods; rather than a survey or card sorting exercise, a researcher can ask a user to show them how they use a specific technology in day to day life. A UX professional from India named Gokul Rangarajan has found success in creating customer mapping exercises with Legos, rather than simply on a chart (Rangarajan, 2015). His company (which was creating a new mobile banking application) then built an entire mock city out of Legos to provide a physical representation of where and how users might interact with their app. Legos were used to facilitate the UX process from early brainstorming through persona creation through rough prototyping. Rangarajan connected the fact that Legos are built on a grid based building system, just like much wireframing and UI layouts are. These similarities helped his company to envision how a webpage might look on different devices and with different design methods, ranging from fix width to responsive to fluid webpages. All of this can be done on the fly in rapid fashion with little investment and with great returns.

      Hardware developers such as Google have begun forays into modular mobile devices, too. Project Ara from Google promises to create a phone or tablet from various pieces to make the device that best suits you (Yadav & Yadav, 2015); if you find yourself travelling frequently, you can fit a larger battery to take the strain; if you are a photographer, you can equip the device with a higher resolution camera. In Project Ara, Google has taken the spirit of Legos and applied it to technology. I picture building an Ara phone in the same way I used to build with my Lego Creator packs; I’m nor constrained by what has already been done. In terms of a phone, I don’t have to rely on seven or eight global phone manufacturers to make my ideal device. Google’s main goal with Project Ara is in fact to “democratize the hardware ecosystem” (Bohn, 2014) so that people have more options in the mobile space. LEGO provided a platform on which toys made across generations into the future could all work together, while not constricting the creativity of the user. Ara is attempting to provide a platform in which mobile hardware across generations can all work together.



      The characteristics of Legos can be applied to the UX design process- both metaphorically and literally. Legos were made to be interoperable, which proves to be a helpful metaphor for modular programming. The myriad creations that have been created with Legos speak to the novelty of users, and UX designers must design experiences knowing that users are just as clever. From brainstorming, to wireframing, to user testing, Legos are being used in interesting ways in UX design. Legos have shaped how I look at and think about UX design, and I can see how they are impacting even today.


AstonishingStudios. (2014, November 28). Ultimate LEGO Pinball Machine. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBCfJTa70BA

Bohn, D. (2014, April 15). Building blocks: how Project Ara is reinventing the smartphone. Retrieved from The Verge: http://www.theverge.com/2014/4/15/5615880/building-blocks-how-project-ara-is-reinventing-the-smartphone

Brickworks, J. (2014, November 7). LEGO Particle Accelerator. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdmDb8ozcXc

Engineering 360. (2013, April 0). Lego: Sturdy Enough for the Next Generation. Retrieved from IEEE GlobalSpec: http://cr4.globalspec.com/blogentry/22366/LEGO-Sturdy-Enough-for-the-Next-Generation

Hansegard, J. (2014, September 4). Oh, Snap! Lego's Sales Surpass Mattel. Retrieved from Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/lego-becomes-worlds-largest-toy-maker-on-movie-success-1409820074

Kristiansen, P. (2008). LEGO Serious Play. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/Per_Kristiansen/lego-serious-playpaper-so-l

LEGO Group. (2010). Company Profile. Retrieved from lego.com: http://cache.lego.com/upload/contentTemplating/AboutUsFactsAndFiguresContent/otherfiles/download98E142631E71927FDD52304C1C0F1685.pdf

LegosEverywhere. (2013, January 2). Lego Working MP7 rubber band gun. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxcXV8mngT0

Moye, D. (2016, May 3). Here’s What Happened To The College Couple Whose Snapchat Love Story Went Viral. Retrieved from Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/snapchat-couple-university-of-wisconsin-madison_us_5728fc2fe4b0bc9cb044dad3

nicjasno. (2013, June 30). LPEpower Mustang with Defiant V6 #2. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbxOGyCXGUA

Rangarajan, G. (2015, July 13). Brainstorming UX Design Strategies with Toy Bricks. Retrieved from Medium: https://medium.com/@Gokulrangarajan/brainstorming-ux-design-strategies-with-toy-bricks-seriously-yes-2ad6fc27872b#.oubl3xegr

Schramm, M. (2011, October 6). Hideo Kojima talks life, influences at USC presentation. Retrieved from Joystiq: https://web.archive.org/web/20111007130139/http://www.joystiq.com/2011/10/06/hideo-kojima-talks-life-influences-at-usc-presentation/

Torres, E. (2012, July 16). Programming concepts: The benefits of modular programming. Retrieved from Examiner: http://www.examiner.com/article/programming-concepts-the-benefits-of-modular-programming

Williams, T. (2015, January 31). My Lego desk fan. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZZ2X9lYLEw

Yadav, V., & Yadav, V. (2015). Challenging and Opportunities of Project Ara. IT Intelligence Innovations, (pp. 184-189).

Jeremy RookComment