What software people can learn from great Lego design – YOW 2012

Lego software design rule 1: design only in white bricks

At YOW! Australia in Melbourne I had the pleasure of introducing and getting to know John-Henry Harris, a product designer at Lego in Denmark. Originally from the UK, his passion for product design, and a love of Lego saw him land the job of many designers’ dreams at a young age.

His talk was about design and innovation, and I was struck by the parallels to the non-brick world – which is why YOW had him at opening spot on Day 1 of the conference’s agile stream of course!

John Henry Harris Lego dragons

Here’s 14+1 Lego design and innovation principles to consider (John Henry has kindly added a 15th in response to our blog post):

  1. Design using only white bricks: as you can see from the illustration above (my very own resident lego designer’s handiwork), making something look great with only white bricks is HARD. Your model immediately goes a bit flat, there’s no flashy accents of colour to rely on, and no detail – the essential form must stand on its own two feet. Then, when you get the design right, add colour a little at a time and ensure every colour adds some value. In software land, think Balsamiq over Powerpoint as your IDE.
  2. No new bricks – treat this constraint as a challenge to your inventiveness. Of course
    They look similar, but do quite different functions.

    They look similar, but do quite different functions.

    every designer wants new bricks developed to enable a special corner or moving feature of their model, but the cost of moulds and development is high, think tens of thousands. Now, Lego certainly isn’t shy of investing in new brick designs, as the Star Wars series shows, but every one must be heavily justified and be widely re-useable. Sound familiar to any Open Source guardians of the core application code? Every Lego designer also knows that somewhere in the world, their name is being cursed when a model rebuild is foiled by a failure to find the exact, rare, tiny 1 x 1 brick needed – the one with the hollow back and a rebated front side, rather than a stud.

  3. Always make options to test. John-Henry told us the story of a Lego technic bulldozerbulldozer model, where from Day 1 the team decided they would build two discrete options – a highly featured, and slightly larger model; and a smaller one, that used up a chunk of the design budget by adding a motor and some moving parts. The team felt confident that the test audience would choose the scale and functionality of the larger, non-motorised model over the mechanised version. Doubtless they even wondered out loud occasionally about the sense of going through the complete design process for 2 things almost the same, when one was clearly the superior product. The final result is above – mechanised won the day, against all predictions. Size ain’t everything.
  4. Involve your customers in design: Lego makes a habit of bringing in realLego-Emerald_Night_Train customers to co-create some products and solve tough engineering problems within other lines. In 2009 the Emerald Night train set was the first train to be made in many years from the standard Lego system, and AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego) with expertise in trains were brought in to work out solutions for motor durability and help with engineering of the set. That is so much more than sending out a research team or conducting a survey on your website – do your products have enough goodwill and the love of your customers to ask them to be involved with design? Have you the humility to work alongside them? Chances are we’ll all spend big dollars on ‘consultants’ instead.
  5. Work in teams. Here’s a major overlap between Lego product design processes and agile software design and development. Multi-disciplinary teams are core to the innovation and design process in both places. There is a team space, shared and individual work environments, plans out in the open. I think our world of business agility is starting to understand the power of this – the Activity Based Working (ABW) movement in architecture is starting to build environments to suit a collaborative work style (with BankWest in Perth being one to see if you want your socks knocked off by futuristic socio-technical building design).
  6. Marketers and designers sit together from Day 1. It’s a subset of Principle #5 I suppose, but so often missed in software development projects. The diversity of personalities just adds to the creative environment, and much time is saved having the ‘go to market’ people in the room. This is grossly absent in most projects relying on software development to succeed. Marketing are too often the team on another level or in another building.
  7. Test with real customers – kids! A great story came up at YOW! to illustrate whether you really
    One of JHH's Creator sets (Fiery Legend) - showing one of the 3 dragons you can make. Re-use makes design so much tougher!

    One of JHH’s Creator sets (Fiery Legend) – showing one of the 3 dragons you can make. Re-use makes design so much tougher!

    know your customer, or whether you’re only making what your well-meaning product owner or business analyst has had inspiration to build for a perceived customer need. Testing Lego dragon designs (I think it was a dragon, might have just been a monster), the team waited anxiously to see of the efforts that had gone into the engineering of an upright walking beast had paid off. It had been a huge mechanical conundrum, constraining the leg joints with pieces drawn from sets across the group – a masterpiece in design. The end result was a shock to the team – to paraphrase the children’s choice: “why would we pick a dragon that walks, when this one fllliiiiesssssssss…” as the child picks up another model and simply swooshes it through the air in their outstretched hand.

  8. Take pride in building to a cost envelope. This follows on from Principle #2 to some extent, and  I reflect is core to many arguments I have witnessed in the past over the benefits of agile methods of working. The simplest resolution of the “how much will this damned thing cost me?” standoff between product owners, accountants and IT is to promise to deliver the highest priority features within an envelope of money. As Dave Thomas wisely once said: “budgeting is easy – simply find out how much money is your CEO willing to bet on this idea”. Building to a cost is an up-front constraint at Lego, and people’s energy goes into designing an innovative solution that kids will love, not fighting over budgets.
  9. Have coaches – coaches are part of the team at Lego, and designers get to spend time being a Technical coach or a Model coach. For many of us in agile-land, coaches are too often one row too many on a budget.xls file. How exactly do we expect to develop our skills at working with agility, which is a mindset founded on continuous innovation and improvement? Maybe to keep costs down, just one person on the team is nominated to read a book on agile, or get certified? Luna Tractor’s experience has been that your optimism will not pay off.
  10. Design rules come from deep user insight – if you are a Lego nerd like me, you
    Another JHH Creator set - 3 radically different cars from the one box of bricks.

    Another JHH Creator set – 3 radically different cars from the one box of bricks.

    will doubtless marvel at the instruction books, where no words are used to ensure universality of the document. But one thing you may not have noticed is a subtle product design rule around very similar parts being required in the same small build sequence. Say, a 1 x 6 and a 1 x 8 red brick. Not allowed! Why? Because a child searching for a 1 x 6, then a 1 x 8 brick amongst the tipped out packet of 200 bricks in a set is going to get frustrated, repeatedly finding and attempting to fit the wrong brick. Which to a young child looks like the right brick. Apple iTunes 11 developers, are you listing to this?

  11. The hardest products to design are the ones where re-use is mandatory. The Lego Creator series is a tough assignment. Essentially, 1 box of bricks, 3 different models within a theme required. With as few bits as possible left over after each model. Think code re-use is a challenge?
  12. Build with your left hand, or with gardening gloves. That is how far the Lego designers will go to emulate what it is like to be 4 years old and trying to pick up and manipulate the smaller pieces in the Lego sets (for kids just graduating from Duplo). In software, how often do we think of constraining our skill when using and testing our product? We’re all whiz-kid digital people, do we really imagine we can know what it is like to be a ‘normal’ person? When was the last time you explained search engine optimisation or the internet to a friend from a non-IT world?
  13. The Lego design team reviews the product – just like a retro/showcase, and you’d better be ready to have your say. With Lego, products may stay in design mode for months, and I dare say that it gets tedious, even for a Lego-nutcase to have to rebuild the same item over and over for weeks at a time, searching for better ways and faster, stronger engineering solutions. The team provides the context, the support and the feedback so that invention can be turned to innovation. Problem-solving is so often a team exercise in both our worlds.
  14. Every product can be analog and digital, so be open to options. The design team working on Lego’s Ninjago models used story-telling to develop characters and context for the individual mini-figures. Their clever solution to stimulating their ideas was to hire a cartoonist, who would sketch story boards and story lines and put them on the wall. Now, art imitates life, whichScreen shot 2012-12-16 at 4.23.45 PM imitates art, as the Ninjago TV series is a great success alongside the toys. Traditional merchandising turned on its head! Do you have the creative bandwidth to imagine games, video, books, and social media as well as your starting software product? Or is that someone else’s job in your company?
  15. Have fun – play is an essential part of the process of invention and innovation. You can see John-Henry talk on this subject at TedX here. I opened the day with a quote from JHH’s website: “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing” – George Bernard Shaw.

And when you’re as good at playing as John-Henry Harris, you might one day create something as awesome as this. Santa, are you listening?

1962 Volkswagon Campervan in Lego by John-Henry Harris.

1962 Volkswagon Campervan in Lego by John-Henry Harris.

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