The strange science behind Lego's tiny computers

Lego-sized control panels can help us understand the visual clues and other design tricks that separate the intuitive from vexing.

Many toy blocks in different colors making up one large square shape in top view. Toys and games. Le...

What can Lego control panels teach us about design? User interface designer George Cave documented on his blog how he bought 52 computer interfaces from Lego marketplace BrickLink to try and learn more about what makes a good panel design.


Cave organized the bricks into a graph. He ranked how chaotic they were on the Y-axis, and how much of the panel was taken up by a screen on the X-axis.

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A brick like this? It's bad, Cave explains. There is basically no differentiation between switches. That makes it hard to understand.


This brick, on the other hand, is one of three that Cave describes as having "beautiful, visual layouts with clearly differentiated inputs and simple, clean organization."


Another of Cave's favorites is the radar screen.


The third interface shows an aquazone pattern.


Why does all this matter? Because could UI design can help save lives.


Cave explains that psychologist Alphonsis Chapanis looked at why so many B-17 bombers were crash landing in World War II. Chapanis suggested the pilots were getting confused by the landing gear and flap control knobs, which were right next to each other and looked similar.

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More recent examples show the danger of bad button layouts. Cave cited a CNN article about Ford recalling the Lincoln SUV. Drivers switching to Sport mode were inadvertently shutting off the engine instead.

The problem was the panel design. The Sport mode button, marked "S," was the same shape and design as the engine cut-off button directly below. Oops.


With panel design visible practically everywhere in modern life, Lego could teach us more than it seems at first glance.

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Read more about the project on George Cave's blog.

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