It's hard to think of a product that has more co-creation at its most basic DNA level than LEGO. It is essential that customers (generally kids) make something out of their products. As we prepare for our yard sale (the most expensive yard sale you'll ever rummage through), I know that our bags of loose pieces from Nick's twelve year lifetime will be gobbled up at a good price.
LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT takes co-creation to a new level. First of all, the sets go for about $250 each. They are more involved than the original Mindstorms which was cooked in the MIT Media Lab under Dr. Seymour Papert and debuted as a product in 1998.
factoid: Original Mindstorms has been on the market for 8 years and sold about 1 million units.
3 Ways LEGO Leads Co-creation
Beyond putting bits and pieces in the hands of their customers and inviting them to create something, LEGO has really advanced the ball on co-creation. First, they invited 4 expert users, master-builders, to help design the product, itself. I.D. Magazine calls them citizen builders. These aren't focus groups, they are collaborators. This is the model of co-creation that excites my the most. Many consumer product companies fall into the rut of going to the customer only to learn unintended consequences through focus groups or other old-school research models (even the term "research" sounds like labcoats picking and probing at "dumb" subjects). Many more rely on innovation from the inside. Well, outsider innovation is a spectacular way to fresh thinking often informed from the user perspective. More and more companies are looking for innovation from outside. Naysayers are quick to point out issues of intellectual property. If I help LEGO create the next million-unit seller, what's my cut? I say, don't worry. we are ways away from that conflict. Plus most major companies have in-house legal counsel who need something more to do than protect the status quo.
Here's how the site explains what has become of the 4-person team:
"In 2004, four LEGO® MINDSTORMS® enthusiasts were tapped to develop the next generation of LEGO robotics. A year later, 10 more joined to test what had been developed. This past January, 100 more spots opened up, for which nearly 10,000 people applied. Next, the LEGO Group invited major corporations and organizations to join the developer’s circle. Welcome to BIG ROBOT ON CAMPUS!
BIG ROBOT ON CAMPUS is a robotics "play date" odyssey that engaged engineers, designers, programmers and creatives at some of today's best-known corporate and collegiate campuses in lively discussions on technology, consumer-driven product and experience development and innovation and the rising popularity of the robotics category. Of course, they all tested the powers of the NXT platform by building their own bots, too.
You'll get an inside look at some of the most talented minds at WIRED magazine, GAP Kids, Microsoft, AOL, Reebok and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And you’ll see NXT bots created by other leading groups!"
Secondly, a social media network has inevitably sprung up around MINDSTORMS NXT users. There are the Mindtsorms blogs. Nxtbot is not "officially" by LEGO but they sponsor it, the editor is a friendly-friendly and they feature a link to it on their homepage. This site covers a broader view of robotics. I am guessing that strategically, LEGO wants to associate their non-toy with serious robotics which is smart.
Another terrific blog is bNXT which features "schematics" that help users accomplish tasks and a platform for ongoing user suggestions. Just take a look at this post-excerpt from Felip Verhaege (forget about not uinderstanding, just think about how helpful this is to LEGO):
"So my #1 feature request for NXT-G would be:
- a NXT-G block that allows you to embed NBC code (best way because it brings the code right into the NXT-G environment), OR
- a NXT-G block that allows you to issue so-called "direct commands" to the firmware (as specified by the NXT SDK), OR
- a NXT-G block that allows you to run an external program."
Oh and the content is in Chinese! There are plenty of other enthusiast blogs and Web sites. Just search the product name.
The third way that LEGO leads the way is the obvious one. Their product drives us to create or co-create. Not just build our own robots or our own code for the bots but communities and events. The most impressive of all of these is the First Lego league International where you can join competitions like last years Ocean Odyssey. There are linke to over 30 country-sites here.
factoid: The 2006 competition, Nano Quest, has 3902 team registrations as of Sept 7. (registration remains open until Sept 29)
factoid: FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter.
Even the "small" things are done well like offering a junior league for 6-9 year-olds and site "badges" you can download and put on your own site.
LEGO has co-creation in their DNA. They extend the core product expertise to embrace social media and in the process both support community and let go of control of their product. When I click through from their site to these third-party sites I click through a disclaimer screen which is all I need to not hold them liable should I find some frisky girl robots from an enterprising young user at the other site.
Other companies should be so lucky as to embrace an enthusiast community and help them accomplish their aspirations for creation and fun (not to mention some good learning along the way). I.D. Magazine quotes Dr. Papert calling this "hard fun".
factoid: there are 388 posts on Flickr and are currently dominated by product shots and seminar/demos that have been held. This time next year, we will see complete groups of actual user-created robots.