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What Lego Can Teach Us

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Credit: trythis on Flickr.

Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
Lego's aesthetic of illustrated, staged, non-verbal construction is rightly considered a classic in the infographics space. Over the last few years I've completed a number of Out Of Box Experience (OOBE) projects for various clients, most often those in the medical category, and I often find myself going back to Lego for inspiration when tackling a new problem. For those unfamiliar with OOBE, the OOBE is commonly defined by the series of interactions and first impressions a user has with a product from the point of primary interaction with the packaging through the experience of first use.

A large component of any OOBE project is the instruction set that provides landmarks and directions to the opener as they are routed through the experience. Though Lego typically concerns building a container while OOBE involves taking one apart, I've found there are many conceptual similarities between the two. As a result, many of the principles I apply to these types of projects are derived from my play with Lego as a child. Here are four things I think Lego does particularly well, and what that means for the Out Of Box Experience.

Onion-Skinning
Lego instructions typically feature the addition of multiple new bricks to the model from one panel to the next. Rather than just add one element in each panel (brick-by-brick, the process would rapidly stagnate) they amplify the builder's excitement by creating layers; the builder can make a cognitive leap to the next stage, understand the process holistically, and relate sections to one another. A good OOBE does the reverse; sections containing thematically like-minded elements are removed together. In patterning the carton this way, designers are able to build linkages in the opener's mind that will endure beyond the opening experience.

Credit: Roo Reynolds on Flickr.
Controlled Hierarchies & Views
Lego instruction sets begin with a specific perspective and viewpoint common to all of their manuals. During the instruction process the view doesn't shift or zoom. The hierarchy of the carton is such that the builder sees the completed kit on the cover, then the parts list, and then the kit through assembly until they have a finished product that matches the cover. Individual steps are not broken down and compartmentalized in comic strip style, but rather left open and free as is to prompt free forward and back motion through the stages of build. Common perspective is key to understanding both in Lego and in OOBE. Unexpected interactions or unexplained shifts in perspective cause confusion in users; creating stability and calm is important, especially in the first interaction a user may have with a product. OOBE is a fluid and often introspective process. Allowing the user to proceed at their own pace, and go forward and backwards through the process when needed, is appreciated by them, and creates goodwill towards the product being opened.

Clarity in Labeling
Lego manuals are famously simple. As previously mentioned they don't break down steps into frames, and instead number each graphic with a boldface sans serif that, in some cases, is larger than the step itself. Brick colors are indicated in the instructions, as are numbers on individual baggies of bricks. The effect is maximum clarity; the builders know exactly where to look when they need a specific element for the model they're assembling. In the OOBE the need for clarity is very similar. Clearly labeled parts and steps through the process create peace-of-mind. Placing components into form-fitting areas of a color-coded and vacuum-formed tray makes sure that there's a place for every part. The natural fear of missing parts is placated and the user can focus on becoming comfortable with the different components rather than worrying whether the parts are even there.

Baggies and Chaptering
When opening a Lego carton, one of the first things you notice are the baggies containing the bricks. Each baggie is marked and categorized, responding to a specific phase of the build. In the instruction manual the different sections of build are called out and the corresponding bags identified for each chapter. In complicated builds this segmentation of the process makes an overwhelming number of bricks and steps manageable. We can learn a lot from this method of parts management and tracking. During the OOBE, especially during the unboxing and assembly of complicated products, it helps to break the process into digestible chunks. Asking the user to parse too many things at once can be overwhelming and frustrating. Chunking the information gives them the chance to catch their breath before proceeding to the next step.

Like a Lego instruction manual, and the blocks it describes, a good OOBE is open-ended. It establishes patterns and possible assembly opportunities, but doesn't restrict the user into one defined track. Through experimentation and play the user can iterate endlessly, exploring pathways and combinations with minimal fallout. A good OOBE, like a Lego manual, provides the principles of assembly, not hard rules that have to be followed. (Check out an exhaustive Lego manual collection here.)

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Nick de la Mare, a creative director at frog design San Francisco, has spent his career designing digital, physical and experiential systems.
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