LEGO Powered Up – interview with the product owner

In the past 2 years I followed the development of the Powered Up system very closely, and I published a lot of content about it. There were many questions raised about the system itself, why it is developed this way, and what will be the development path in the future.

I’m happy to say that you’ll get answers to a lot of questions today, because I had the chance to do this interview with Mr. Flemming Bjørn Jessen, who is the product owner of the Powered Up app at LEGO.

Here is the video version of the interview:

Here is a condensed version of the questions and answers:

Can you please tell me a bit about yourself and your role, what does it mean to be the product owner of the Powered Up app?

The product owner at LEGO is a lot like a film producer. Making sure that tasks are prioritized, well defined, and that the design and development follows the plan. In Powered Up’s case I, the product owner also has the creative responsibility. This means that besides driving design and development I am also responsible for setting the creative direction and strategy for the app. This means that I also spend a lot of time with insights and stakeholders in order to decide what comes next for the Powered Up app.

As far as I know the Powered Up system has a hardware team who is responsible for the physical part of the system, are there separate teams for the Powered Up, Control+, Boost apps as well? Is there a communication and collaboration between these teams or everyone focuses on their own segment? Do they follow each other’s developments?

Yes. We are two teams focusing on hardware and software, and then we are teams focusing on the different product experiences (Control+, Powered Up, Boost etc.). So, in a way we are both divided in teams horizontally and vertically. We work closely together across the teams and aim to align design and development as much as possible. LEGO is a big organization, and this is also an area where we always aim to improve.

I’m a bit confused with the naming convention and I think I’m not alone. Are all the new electronic components members of the Powered Up product family and there is only a differentiation on software level between Powered Up and Control+, or do you refer to e.g. the Technic hub as a Control+ hardware?

Internally the hardware platforms have been referred to as LEGO Power Functions 1 and LEGO Power Functions 2. Like kids, the hardware components live by many names. Depending on where in LEGO you are, the hubs have many names (e.g. the hub used in the CITY trains and Batmobile is known as the hub, the smarthub, the CITY hub, the train hub etc.) The official name is just the hub. So, currently we have the Hub, the Move Hub and the TECHNIC Medium Hub live in products. Powered Up is more an umbrella name for the entire hardware family, compatible with the Powered Up app and the remote control.

How do you see the role of the different apps in the Powered Up ecosystem, what are the main differences between Control+/Powered Up/Boost/Spike Prime/etc?

As stated in the letter we recently sent out, our ambition with the Powered Up app is to make it the intersection for all compatible hardware. With Powered Up we focus more on developing a creative environment, and less on product specific, immersive experiences. This is what the specific product apps are for as Control+, Droid Commander etc.
We hope that LEGO builders will begin with one of our connected experiences in the universe that sparks their interest and then whenever they want to build their own creations and really unlock the full creative potential of their bricks and hardware, they can always go to the Powered Up app to explore, create, control, and code.

The Control+ app is already quite big with only a few set-specific profiles, how will you resolve this in a few years when there’ll be significantly more sets released?

This is when Powered Up comes in the picture. If an app gets retired, then Powered Up supposed to be the one that still has the ability to control all the hardware elements. I can’t promise you it will be called Powered Up in 5 or 10 years, but we will definitely have a solution for you in the future to control the hardware.

The development of the Control+ app follows the sets released. How do you define the roadmap for the Powered Up app, what are the priorities considered regarding the roll out of the different functions?

The Powered Up app has a much wider spectrum of users. We are currently working with four personas to address the different needs and wants of Powered Up users. These four include kids that are primarily using the app as a control for a product (like the Batmobile and the trains), kids that are into coding and creating their own models. AFOLS interested in simple control of hardware, and last but not least technically advanced AFOLs that dive into even the most advanced features. We realize that these personas are a bit saturated, and that the actual spectrum of users are way more nuanced.
It is based on the needs of our users/personas, that we try to prioritize what to do next. This means that sometimes we release very advanced features that kids have little chance of using, let alone understand. Other times we do small usability improvements that more advanced users wouldn’t find necessary.

Who is the primary target audience of the Powered Up app’s free play coding area?

Kids and AFOLs that want to experiment with and build behaviors for their creations. The coding area is more a tool, than an educational experience. But, our coding block language is also continuously in development and will mature more over time.

With Power Functions it is intuitive to assemble simple or even more complex mechanics using the battery boxes, IR remotes/receivers and motors or lights. I think there are a lot of people out there who wants to have some possibility for customization, but without the need of coding.
For example, to add a simple light e.g. to the 4×4 Xtreme Off-roader or the Rally Car and still have the same controls like the official Control+ profile. This is something that is not available today in the app. I think a lot of people would prefer to see the basic and easy to use functions first, and then dive deep in the advanced functions. Apparently the development goes the other way around, starting with the advanced functions and then introducing the mid-level ones.

This is probably one of the areas where we need to focus on. I can’t really share specific plans, but we are definitely planning to fill the gap in the future. We have started the development of the system on the two ends of the spectrum, we cater for the youngest kids and we cater for the very advanced AFOLs, but we need to focus more to the middle as well.

The Power Functions IR system did not have a remote with proportional joysticks, so far we only got a „bang-bang” remote for the Powered Up system as well. Are you considering a native game-controller style remote with joysticks and buttons?

I cannot talk to specific hardware on the drawing board or in development, but controls are very high on the priorities for the Powered Up app. With the most recent update to the Powered Up app you could code the remote control to be more like a classic gamer-controller.

When you defined the way the Powered Up app’s free play area looks like, why did you choose the coding block based approach? The Boost app was already available for the coding experience, did you ever consider to start with something customizable but more simple and straightforward to use?

WeDo 2.0 was the first to introduce the horizontal blocks and that was based on Scratch Junior, Boost continued to build on that programming language and creating what we now know as our internal LEGO coding language. We feel there is a need for an app platform where you can highly customize your LEGO creations. With the LEGO brick system you have infinite possibilities, the ambition of Powered Up is to be the digital mirror of that. We aim to reproduce all actions and behavior in connected experiences out of the principle that users have to be able to recreate whatever we come up with in designed experiences.

Are you running any usability tests with the Powered Up coding environment comparing it to Power Functions? How would you currently compare the ease of use of these two systems for free building?

Yes. Maybe not comparatively since coding is much more complex than plug-n-play. We fully realize that Bluetooth connection and coding are more complex, but it also allows for more creativity and freedom.

Boost focuses very much on teaching the usage of the different coding blocks, there are several examples within the app. I think Powered Up would require something similar, like basic code snippets and examples. Are there any plans to share these in the app or on lego.com?

We have plans to make our coding environment much more user-friendly for kids. Tutorials and more simplified coding are great ideas.

We have 2 controller interfaces in the Powered Up app currently with fixed control elements. Can we expect a fully customizable interface within the app?

Yes.

As we were informed previously Power Functions will be phased out by the end of 2020. Do you think the Powered Up app will be mature enough at that time to be able to fill the void, will we be able to replicate the same level of customization in the app that was possible with PF?

We will probably not reach the same level of plug-n-playability, since the app is an extra interface, and we depend on Bluetooth connection. It is definitely our ambition to pursue this within the nature of the Powered Up app.

I scrolled through the app reviews for the Android and iOS version, and the most frequent complaint is the lack of documentation. Usually the following feedback is provided by customer service: „Generally we don’t provide a lot of external documentation for our apps because we want to encourage fans to play and experiment to figure out what the different coding blocks do”
If that is the case why did TLG feel the need to provide built-in documentation for Boost with the tool tips (and also some information shared on lego.com) and why it is non-existent for the Powered Up app? Do you think it has a positive effect on the user experience if they have the figure out everything by themselves?

There’re many aspects to this question.
As mentioned before Powered Up is more a creative tool, than an introduction and education to coding. Nevertheless, we feel obligated to improve the usability of our coding language towards kids. This is a continuous ambition of our coding language.
Regarding documentation specifically we are trying to find the balance between actually needed documentation, and improved usability/tutorials/onboarding. In our usability tests we tend to see kids experimenting with different coding blocks, rather than reading a description of how a specific block works. However, we acknowledge that detailed coding block documentation would be nice to have for AFOLs and parents.

The overall information shared on lego.com about Powered Up is very minimal. There’s a short FAQ that was only recently updated to incorporate information about the 3.0 version of the app, the guide about the Power Functions IR control that was „promised” in the 3.1 update a month ago is still not shared, there are no examples or guidelines that’d help users to start their journey with the system (apart from one short video). Are there any plans to improve this situation, can you share some details?

Yes. We are working to improve the Powered Up section of LEGO.com. The ambition is to make it the go-to destination for getting started with the system as well as getting the information about the more advanced functions of Powered Up.

The basic protocol used by the Powered Up system was shared on GitHub, but it is not complete and it was not updated since early 2019. Do you plan to provide more information to the developers?

I know this is being looked into, but I don’t have exact details to share at the moment.

Is there anything else that you would like to share about the Powered Up system?

The resources of the Powered Up team isn’t infinite. This means that we have to priorities our resources. There is SO much work to do before Powered Up is in the place, that I personally think we should be. That also means that we sometimes have to down-prioritize an area in order to do other things. I think documentation has been one of the balls we dropped in order to focus on other, more important things. Also I think it is important to note that the current Covid-19 situation may impact our plans.

Thank you very much for this opportunity and for sharing all this information with us, can’t wait to see the next update of the Powered Up app!

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2 Comments:

  1. I think one of the most important questions here was left completely unanswered. If I were given the opportunity to talk with this LEGO PU Designer, I’d ask something like “Because you HAVE to control every motor from the control+ app, and you cannot simply connect a motor, turn on the control+hub, and leave the motor running indefinitely, does this mean that the technic sets that had one battery box and motor, which you’d turn on, and then control all the set’s functions with the gearbox switchers, like the lego technic 42042, will be nonexistent? Are these types of lego technic models basically gone forever?”

    • You need to understand two things – I was talking to the porduct owner of the Powered Up app (software, not hardware), and there’s no point asking TLG staff about future hardware releases because there won’t be any confirmation. Have a look at this Eurobricks topic and you’ll find the answer you’re looking for.

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