Lego Information Radiators

Posted on June 1, 2012


Introduction

Some time ago an intriguing article was published on InfoQ proposing the use of Lego blocks as a means of creating tangible multi-dimensional information radiators.

In this post I’ll briefly explain what Information Radiators are, how they can be used to present multiple information facts simultaneously and my experience of using Lego as a medium for time tracking.

Information Radiators

In essence, an “information radiator” offers a single shared summary of a complex system. The “complex system” can be conceptual or real. For example, the system might be a software system or even the development project creating the software system. In the latter, the status, complexity, outstanding time or allocated team members could be radiated for a given project task, each of which can be considered a dimension of information.

Task Boards

Perhaps the most well known information radiator is the Task Board.

In the above “Scrum Task Board” (i.e. a Task Board that has not been modified to model a custom workflow using Kanban):

  1. Sticky notes are used to represent tasks
  2. Sticky notes are placed within only one of three columns
  3. Sticky notes have an avatar placed on top of them as appropriate

The following information is presented:

  • Name of each task – the text on the sticky note (fact)
  • Status of a task – its position in either Not Started, In Progress or Done (dimension)
  • Who is allocated to a task – the avatar sticker placed on a task sticky note (fact or dimension)
  • Task priority – ordered from top to bottom (dimension)
From this, the following can be quickly established:
  • How many tasks remain
  • How many tasks are currently being worked on
  • How many tasks a given person is currently working on (helps to identify bottlenecks)
  • How much of the work load has already been completed

Task Boards are often most affective when kept to a simple, tangible, physical board on a wall next to the team or in a shared space. However, if the team is remotely distributed, an electronic Task Board (often a web app) can be used and a large screen used in each location to support peripheral visual awareness (see Radiation).

Other Common Information Radiators

Other useful Agile project health measures can be promoted to information radiators by placing them next to the team or in a shared area:

  • Burn-down chart, which plots time on the x-axis and remaining work on the y-axis.
  • Build wall, which in its most basic form shows whether the current Continuous Integration build has failed or passed by presenting the screen in either red or green, respectively. This must be presented electronically.

Radiation

The “radiation” aspect encapsulates the simplicity and accessibility of a good information radiator. When presented physically, it can offer opportunities for peripheral visual awareness. To be successful, it must be accurate, easy to update (to ensure accuracy) and unambiguous. People walking past should be able to establish the state of the summarised system at a glance.

Radiation ia a powerful concept. It supports information summarisation and drill-down based on a viewer’s physical distance from a source (an information radiator).

Using a Task Board as an example, from a distance a viewer may only see more yellow stickies in “In Progress” than in “Done”. However, when they move closer to the Task Board they may be able to discern how many stickies are in each. Moving closer still, they may be able to read the name of the tasks and who is working on them. Why does it matter? From a distance it can be seen that a lot of work won’t be finished in time for the end of an iteration of work, for example. Moving closer, the exact work can then be established.

Depending on how an information radiator is used, any of a range of information visualisations can be created. As an example, a Task Board can be arranged like a physical Tree Map by clustering yellow stickies together to create large yellow areas.

Dimensionality

The multi-dimensional capabilities of an information radiator are theoretically limited only by:

  1. The rules of the radiator, conceived by its creator (i.e. their creativity)
  2. The nature of the medium used to present it

In reality, the comprehensibility of an information radiator imposes more of a constraint to the number of dimensions that can be used, and consequently the amount of information that can be presented, than the creativity of its maker or the constraints of the medium. To reiterate, people walking past should be able to establish the state of the summarised system at a glance.

Lego as a Medium

Using Lego blocks as a medium allows information dimensions to be directly mapped to the physical dimensions of a block and the physical space within which it exists. By my count, Lego blocks can afford up to seven dimensions of information in total.

The block posses 3 physical dimensions:

  1. Block length
  2. Block width
  3. Block height

The block also posses a colour:

  1. Block colour

The block posses a further 3 physical dimensions in space:

  1. Position on x-axis of Lego board
  2. Position on y-axis of Lego board
  3. Position on z-axis of Lego board (stacking blocks)

To achieve changes in the z-axis blocks must be stacked.

Lego Examples

The InfoQ article provides further links to examples in which Lego is used as an information radiator for:

Time Tracking Trial

I personally tried using Lego as a time tracking tool for a period to identify what tasks I spent my day on.

Dimensions

I used the following four dimensions:

  1. Block colour: task category
  2. Position on x-axis of Lego board: day of week
  3. Position on z-axis of Lego board (stacking blocks): hour of day
  4. Position on y-axis: sub-division of hour

Rules

I used the above dimensions with the following rules:

  • I used around 5 different colours to categorise my common tasks: development, support, admin, breaks, meetings.
  • I recorded the time from 9am until 5pm each workday by stacking blocks on top of each other (z-axis).
  • I sub-divided each hour into 15 minute segments, with each 15 minute segment recorded by a single Lego block (size 1). This is reflected on the y-axis upon which a block exists.
  • I recorded each day of the week from left to right across the x-axis of the Lego board.

System

Combining the above dimensions and rules produced the following system:

Review

From my experience of using Lego blocks to track my time for a few weeks I believe it provides the following pros and cons.

Pros

Fun Factor

Playing with Lego in a professional work environment is fun. As a result, I was more inclined to update my time tracking system.

Learning Opportunity

I did actually learn quite a bit about where my time went each day. However this could have been achieved through any time recording system if I’d been disciplined enough to maintain it (see Fun Factor).

Cons

Cost

I had to buy two large boxes of 650 pieces of 9 different colours, each at a price of around £25, to have sufficient blocks and colours for my “system”. See: LEGO 6177 Basic Bricks Deluxe

I also needed a base to stick the blocks on, which cost around £6. See: LEGO Creator 626 Large Green Baseplate

At a total cost of around £56, initial setup wasn’t cheap.

Embarrassment

Playing with Lego in a professional work environment is embarrassing. I received many odd looks.

Time

It takes a little extra time to physically create a structure. Certainly more time than simply writing it on a piece of paper.

Durability

Due to the fixed size of the baseplate and number of blocks, I had to clear the baseplate each week. To maintain a record of time from week to week I had to fall back on another medium, such as writing the total time spent on each task on a piece of paper. As an alternative, a photo could have been taken each week, but photos are difficult to perform trend analysis on.

Mobility

A 30 cm x 30 cm Lego baseplate plus its attached Lego blocks is not an easily movable object. Opportunities to update my time tracking system on the train home when, for example, I realised I’d forgotten to record the last hour of my day, were not possible. I see this as a limitation specific to the usage scenario.

Conclusion

Using Lego as a medium for a personal time tracking system is fun, but somewhat self indulgent.

If however it takes the injection of fun that using Lego brings to the chore to ensure your time tracking record is kept up-to-date, then perhaps it’s a suitable choice for you.