At The Smallest Scale

Engineers in general spend a lot of time modeling and organizing reality in design. Looking only at structural engineers, a large difference between those who design new buildings and those of us who work with existing buildings is the starting point of the models. New-building analysis and design typically starts with an architectural concept, and the modeling and organization of of ideas and concepts that the engineer, working with the architect, chooses. Existing-building analysis and design starts with the mess and hidden features of reality. I’ve talked about this before but it came back while reading “The UX of LEGO Interface Panels” by George Cave. (“UX” is designer-speak for “user experience”, also known as the human aspects of interface design.)

In one sense, Cave’s piece is the height of absurdity: he’s categorizing and analyzing the control panels that LEGO sets include for various vehicles, labs, and other “high-tech” locations. I love LEGO as much as anyone, but I do try to remember that the kits are not reality. On the other hand, the essay is fantastic. We don’t know what the LEGO designers were thinking when they came up with all the different variations on control-panel bricks, but Cave starts with the messy reality and systematically organizes and analysis it. He relates the visual clues on the toy bricks to the reality of his work – which includes interface design – using a number of real-life examples. Not all are well known, but they are actual engineering problems that had to be solved and which are represented as problem types in the various toy bricks.

In short, I think it’s a must-read essay and one that does more to explain how engineers think than any number of “how engineers think” articles. As for using a child’s toy to explain things, I’m not embarrassed and Cave doesn’t seem to be either. Or, as Mark Twain put it, “Let us not be too particular; it is better to have old secondhand diamonds than none at all.”

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