How to use Legos to spark creative customer conversations

As author and interview expert Steve Portigal once said: interviewing is more than just interviewing.

In fact, there are a host of ways we can turn Q&A conversations into participatory, fun-filled design research activities.

Let me tell you about one we recently put to practice: The Lego Survey.

To start, let me confuse you by admitting it’s not actually a survey. That was just a codename we called it internally. But before jumping into the mechanics of the method, let me start with a story.

Legos for research?

This story begins a few months ago, when my colleagues and I started thinking about ways we could creatively engage people at our customer conference in Barcelona — at the Atlassian Summit Europe 2017.

One idea that bubbled up was to use Legos to automate data gathering. Amongst ourselves we called the idea “The Lego Survey”. The original method was simple: collect nominal, dichotomous data— i.e. categorical variables with only two levels — by asking people to answer a question using differently colored Lego bricks.

We would place the Legos down on a table, ask a binary question (think Yes/No), and encourage people to place them in any order they liked.

The rationale was that we’d start to see trends by the interesting placement of the two colors. We also thought that — over time— we might be able to actually utilize this numerical data to inform our understanding of the conference population.

As visitors started stacking the bricks though, we realized a deeper value of behind the Legos: to open up conversations. It wasn’t the interesting structure being built, it was the stories the structure gave rise to.

The Legos, it turned out, were interview stimulant.

In fact, people started walking straight up to our Lego set and opening a conversation with personal pieces, like how they play Legos with their children or how they used them as part of their Agile teamwork.

This type of personal connection with our customers made a difference, as it led to entertaining and informative anecdotes. The role the Legos played, therefore, was as encouragement. The Legos helped put people’s defensive guards down and relax.

And for us researchers, the Legos helped us break the ice with customers. Instead of just data without context, it was an information exchange about underlying belief structures and motivations. It was fun.

For example, one of my favorite moments at the Lego Survey was when it toppled over and someone made a joke about product downtimes. Performance can be a touchy issue, so starting off on a joke, especially from the customer’s own words, made it a bit easier to breach. It also helped us understand why performance mattered at his business.

I believe it was chiefly through the colorful nature of the Legos that we were able to derive rich stories worthy of repeating throughout the business. The vivid bricks broke the ice in a way that we were able to connect more authentically with customers and enhance the overall interviewing experience.

We also collected more stories than we could have valuable nominal data, information useful enough to understand the multi-varied context of our product use and inspire design.

Build it tomorrow

The word “lego” literally means “play well”. It also means “I connect” in Italian.

I figure that’s fitting given the point of this article: it never hurts to play well and connect with customers. Especially when interviewing them in corporate contexts.

Why not try something like this at your next site visit or focus group? Grab a box of legos and apply it to your own context. You never know the conversations you’ll construct.

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Thanks to Keith Robinson, Matthias Schreck, and Mary Trombley for feedback on earlier drafts of this Medium post. A shout out to fellow Atlassian designers Becky White, Daniel Kerris, Kevin Coffey, Georgie Bottomley, and Marie-Claire Dean for making our lego survey a fun reality this year.