The Beauty of Lego Instructions
Christmas has just come and gone.
We have two young kids and I spent a good deal of time putting toys together. It was a fascinating and frustrating experience.
Some of the toys were nearly thrown out of the window before they made it under the tree.
It’s astonishing how bad some of instructions were for some toys. The images were blurry, the text was confusing and the presentation was appalling.
Then there was Lego, who seem to treat instructions as if they were a work of art.
The bad instructions
With bad documentation, not only are images and text often illegibly squeezed onto a single sheet of paper, but that black and white paper is crumpled in the bottom of the box.
Here are the instructions for a Barbie dream house.
Here are the instructions for a trampoline. Again, everything is black-and-white. The text is confusing and constantly refers to numbers that are referenced on other pages.
Here are part of the instructions for an outdoor play set. This is an even better example of all the problems mentioned above:
The Lego instructions
Now let’s see how Lego handles instructions. You can download thousands of examples from the Lego website.
The full-color images are beautifully presented with clear, large images and numbers.
Lego doesn’t try to squeeze all of the instructions onto a single, crappy piece of black-and-white paper. Each step is given its own page. Lego isn’t afraid to make instruction books that are 50+ pages long, if that’s required.
Here’s an example from the Lego Ninja series:
In fact, the images here don’t do the instructions full justice. The real instructions are printed on high-quality, glossy paper. It feels like handling a small art catalog.
Here’s a page from the Empire State Building instructions:
Here’s an example from a cafe, aimed at girls:
Notice there’s no text on any of the pages. The illustrations are beautiful and clear enough to stand on their own.
Anyone speaking any language could follow Lego’s instructions.
A 4-year old could follow these instruction. I know because my daughter managed it over Christmas.
Instead of saving money by creating crappy instructions on a single sheet of black-and-white paper, Lego have gone above and beyond. The quality of their instructions is central to how much our family enjoyed the Lego toys.
What about our own instructions?
If you’re reading this, you’re probably used to dealing with software documentation.
Think about the software we use every day and present to our customers.
How much of our software documentation looks like the first examples: badly-presented, heavy on confusing text and treated as an after-thought?
How much better could our software be if we treated documentation as Lego does?
How much more popular and more beloved could our software be if we treated documentation as central to the entire experience?
I’ve just built a Mega-Blocks Halo Locus which involved building a locus thing and a space buggy. What frustrated me at first was that all the lego bricks are just chucked into random bags rather than keep them in any kind of order.
Saying that, once I had gone through the first 5 pages of instructions, I was starting to enjoy the challenge of finding the different brick with my some and family to get it all built up.
All in all – I would recommend Lego or Mega-Blocks to any child and parent as a brilliant way to spend time with each other.
Thanks Matt. Yes, absolutely agreed.
I wasn’t a Lego fan-boy at all before this Christmas, but it was a really enjoyable experience with the kids. The instructions made the difference between frustration and happiness.
Total and complete fan of legos… don’t care for mega-blocks I don’t think the quality is there.
I think that’s why youtube and videos in general are so popular, because the written instructions for most things in general are lacking greatly. In this day and age people are very visual and yes COLOR is so helpful!
Good point! The color is helpful for illustration, but also to add fun to the process.
Being the father of a nine-year-old little boy who was the recipient of several Lego Star Wars ships with 500+ pieces each, I was a HUGE fan of the Lego instructions on Christmas day 🙂
I found that even the multiple bags found in each box had numbers on them which corresponded to sections of the instructions book(s) (one of the toys had two books, it was so large).
I also found that having the numbers on the bags didn’t matter much if said nine-year-old opened more than one and mixed the pieces together … but that only took once 🙂
All-in-all I totally agree with your assessment Steve, and think we all should take note of this experience…. great ‘documentation’ can be done, and makes everyone’s lives much happier.
Good point, TJ. I think our models were smaller than yours, but even then they were broken into bags to represent the different steps in the process. I can imagine many other manufacturers just dumping everything in together.
Great article. It seems that the artistry of technical writing rarely makes it to the common instructions for consumer products. I always wondered why the Chinese do not hire a westerner to write their instruction manuals. I was in China in November and saw some interesting translations on their signs.
LOL. I used to live in Japan and thought the same thing. We’ve got a book on our shelves here called “Japlish” that’s full of bad translations: [url=http://www.amazon.com/Japlish-Sally-Larsen/dp/0788154567]http://www.amazon.com/Japli…[/url]
Poor documentation is definitely more than a mild irritant.
Extension developers are busy building the next great app or revising the current ones. It seems that they rely on reacting in their forums when a user needs clarification. In advance, it is often difficult for the developer to anticipate the wide variety of issues new users will raise. They know their product inside & out… they’re too close.
Active forums give developers strong cues for revising & upgrading their documentation. But, well, they’re too busy answering questions in the forum. Unfortunately, cost of outside help in this area is viewed as something to avoid.
Lego is an inspiration.
Even though I’m not a fan of legos, and have no desire to build a lego set, I think I’m almost tempted to do so.
And great points in your article! There’s been many times where documentation is so heavy that I just skip it and try to figure it out on my own.
OK, so I know this is an old post, but saw “Lego” in the title, and had to respond 🙂
I know I’m a grown man, but I still put at least 2 or 3 lego kits on my Christmas list each year. I’m a sucker for anything Technic or the “Exclusives” stuff. I have a Ferrari F40 and a Tie Fighter kit in their boxes next to my desk right now! Just looking for a bit of free time to build them.
Anyway, good points in your article, the instructions allow pretty much anyone from any age to build a fairly complex project. Consistency of layout, with clear linear progression is the key here!
Yes, it’s a wonderful constraint not to use any words.
I suspect it really forces the Lego team to think very hard about how to explain things.