IOWA Magazine | 06-03-2019

Building a Career: Bret Schafbuch

A Tippie graduate's career path leads him to Lego headquarters in Denmark.
Bret Schafbuch PHOTO: JOE MORTENSEN University of Iowa alumnus Bret Schafbuch stretches the boundaries of imagination as he creates apps for Lego.

Bret Schafbuch's job would be the envy of any Lego-obsessed kid. The Iowa native is now a senior manager of user experience and prototypes at the Lego Group headquarters in Billund, Denmark—a place where no one over the age of 12 except Lego employees can enter.

"Lego" is an extraction of the Danish phrase leg godt, or "play well." The company, known for the iconic colorful, plastic bricks, has long explored how to extend healthy play into digital spaces, which is where Schafbuch and his department come in. They produce apps that accompany Lego products, and design and build software that supports internal model designers. Most recently, in close collaboration with internal teams, they developed an app called Powered Up, which allows builders to drive the newly released remote-controlled Lego Batmobile.

As designers of user experience, Schafbuch (00BBA) and his team study how people feel and how they accomplish tasks when they use technology. One of the joys and challenges of designing for kids, says Schafbuch, is "many of the paradigms we think work for adults pretty much don't apply to children."

"Many of the paradigms we think work for adults pretty much don’t apply to children." - Bret Schafbuch

Schafbuch says one obvious example is that most children under the age of 7 aren't reading, so products cannot rely on text for navigation. Other aspects are more surprising.

"In terms of testing digital designs, kids are not afraid of failure—in fact they learn that way," says Schafbuch. "Generally, I've observed that the younger they are, the less fear they have trying out an app. When we lay out a design, an adult might follow a particular path or be tentative about doing something wrong, but with kids it's more about what's exciting and interesting."

Currently, Schafbuch enjoys managing a group of designers as a member of his department's overall leadership team. He says some of his most rewarding work at Lego has been in collaboration with research specialists at the MIT Media Lab and Tufts University. Also, while attending an Association for Computing Machinery Interaction Design and Children conference, Schafbuch interacted with Juan Pablo Hourcade, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa. "In my industry, he's an important person," says Schafbuch. "It's really special that we have someone from the University of Iowa who is an academic leader for interaction design for kids."

Schafbuch picked up the building blocks for the first time since his childhood at the Lego Group's induction program for new employees where set building is part of the workday. Today his favorite family pastimes are building Lego sets that match his sons' skill levels and interests, as well as trying to free-build objects like Santa's sleigh with inspiration from pictures found online. Schafbuch says, "It's been neat to have worked on a product line and then tell my sons, 'Daddy worked on that one,' and to see how curious they become."

This profile has been adapted from an article that originally appeared in Tippie Magazine, a publication for alumni of the Tippie College of Business.

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Workplace Culture at Lego

"The culture here is very collaborative and authentically polite. In Denmark, the hierarchies aren't flat, but employees at all levels can speak up. I can talk with a senior vice president on a first-name basis quite easily, and there is an avenue to give constructive feedback to leadership. That also means the junior people are quite respected if they give their opinions. I expect the younger people we hire to be quite vocal."

Return to the Sets

"My first year working at Lego I was buying a new set every month. Nostalgia kicked in big time, and I cleaned all my old sets from the '80s and '90s that my mom had kept. There have also been several niche sets that pull the nostalgia strings like Ghostbusters, Doctor Who, Back to the Future—and I had to buy them. Oh, and the Lord of the Rings sets were hard to pass up."

Advice for New Graduates

"Hard work is still key. It's important to keep challenging yourself and working hard. Stay hungry. Challenge the status quo and challenge the systems other generations have put in place."

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