Teaching user experience with Lego

Whenever I have to communicate what it is I do, or the benefits of UX, I feel a bit like a  salesmen, having to convince someone (almost against their will) why they should care about user experience as much as I do. Because of this I’m often on the lookout for different ways of educating people. Since moving ‘client-side’, after years of working in agencies, I’ve found myself in a position where more time can be dedicated to educating people without necessarily worrying about being on the clock. In this new environment, away from pitches and ‘honeymoon periods’, I get the opportunity to find more engaging ways to communicate the relevance, benefits and importance of experience design.

A few years ago at UX London Jared Spool shared his workshop technique, ‘Making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich’. In the workshop he asks a group to write down, step by step, how to make the sandwich. He then takes the raw ingredients and makes the sandwich by following the instructions to the letter. If the directions failed to tell him to remove the bread from the bag, he’d make the sandwich with the bread still in the bag, and so on. I thought this was an interesting way of getting across the need to understand your audience and not take anything for granted.

There are no original ideas

I liked the idea, but wanted to come up with an activity that would encourage greater group participation. I wanted to similarly educate people on the importance of good navigation and clear user assistance, but at the same time communicate some of the fundamentals of user-centered design. I came up with an idea I liked… and then discovered Jared had beaten me to it!

Testing Lego Construction’ was the sort of approach I wanted to take, but I thought it would be worth developing my idea further, to see how I could evolve it to better suit my own needs.

Lego-centered design

In contrast to Jared’s approach of two observers and one assembler I decided to take the role of observer myself and asked two volunteers to help me, one taking the role of ‘Instructor’, the other of ‘Maker’. I bought a basic Lego toy, gave the pieces to the Maker,and the manual to the Instructor, who sat with their back to the Maker. I made sure the latter wasn’t aware of what the end result was meant to look like or even be.

The Instructor was asked to follow the manual and guide the Maker through assembling the Lego model step by step. They could approach the activity in anyway they wished. At first I limited the number of questions the Maker could ask but it actually made it more interesting to allow them to ask questions of the Instructor and see how, inturn, they dealt with the queries.

Beta testing

It took my volunteers around 30-40 minutes to complete the build, which was longer than I thought it would take, but in the context of a half day or full day workshop it would probably be about right.

Neither of the volunteers were big fans of Lego, which made it all the more interesting to watch, and put them on a level playing field. Even though they had good instructions to follow, confusion and miscommunication started very early on. The main confusion was over the Lego pieces. Colour was used straight away as a descriptor, but even that proved problematic as the colours didn’t match exactly, for example black bricks within the instructions look grey. The terminology for describing size and shape was also an issue. The Instructor kept referring to the number of “nobbles”, but for the Maker what did that mean? 4 wide, 4×4, or 4 in total? Other words and phrases that caused problems were “prongs”, “pieces”, and describing something as going “away from” or “out from” something. All these small problems soon built up to the point where both volunteers were showing signs of frustration. Once mistakes started to creep in, the task became more difficult as the model no longer matched the instructions.

Losing perspective

One of the main issues was the inability to see the task from the other persons point of view. The Instructor described things from their perspective, giving instructions like “horizontally”, referring to the orientation of the page, which lead the Maker (working in 3 dimensions) to ask “what are you seeing as ‘horizontal’?” Similarly on another occasion the Maker asked “Would it be facing me or you?”, referring to the model in front of her, the Instructor, sat with her back to the Maker, responded “both!”, once again thinking only of the instructions she was reading.

Reviewing the activity

Afterwards I asked the participants for their feedback, and to discuss the activity with each other. It was great to see how frustration soon lead to empathy and the realisation that they weren’t the only one getting annoyed. A prime example was the Maker explaining how she saw the physical bricks (2 by 4, 1 by 6, thin, thick, etc.) which  lead to the immediate realisation by the other participant “why didn’t I explain it like that!”

The activity seemed to work well and with some tinkering could be useful. It helps communicate the importance of understanding your users, their ability levels, the terminology they’re familiar with, and their knowledge of your product, service or subject matter. It reinforces the  importance of clear instructions and navigational cues, use of language and the need for a user friendly interface. If the Observer role was taken by a third participant It could also help to highlight the benefits of watching people interact with your product or service, experiencing the highs and lows first-hand, educating them on the importance of user testing.

Evolving the activity

If I was to run this activity as part of a workshop in the future I’d split the group into 3 separate teams. It would probably work best if there were 9 attendees.

Each of the teams would ideally consist of a Maker, an Instructor and 1 or more Observers. The groups would be given the same Lego building task, and a 30 minute time limit. But there would be different restrictions applied to each.

  • Group A (closed) – The Instructor is given the plans, the Maker the Lego pieces. Neither is able to see what the other is doing. No time is given to prepare. Before and during the task only the Instructor is allowed to speak. This group represents a company or team that doesn’t involve any sort of research or customer feedback into their process.
  • Group B (open) – As with the first group, the Instructor and Maker have defined roles. However, this group is given 2-3 minutes beforehand to discuss the task. They can ask questions of each other, agree terminology, understand each others abilities, and discuss an approach. Once the 2-3 minutes are up only the Instructor can speak.
  • Group C: (collaborative) – The final group have the same set of tasks as group B, the difference being they can have open dialogue throughout the task, in order to ask and answer questions clarify approach and change things around if needed.

Ideally each team would have at least one Observer, asked to remain silent and neutral, their job is to note down how the activity went, along with positives and negatives throughout.

Once the 30 minutes are up, each Observer could then share their experience with the wider group allowing time for their other team members to contribute their experiences also. The workshop facilitator could then discuss the difference between the 3 approaches and highlight the level of majority of each from a UX perspective.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to refine the approach more over the coming months and start to think about including it within a workshop. I’d be interested to read what you think about this, if you’ve heard or been involved in something similar in the past, and how it went. Even if you don’t think it’s a good idea I’d be really interested to read your comments.

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