From the Tanagram Archives : Crowdsourcing

I  was listening to NPR and they had another story about crowd sourcing and a gym shoe company in Seattle that was using these communities to develop surface design on standardized gym shoes. This got me thinking about the role of people in designing products and services directly vs. trained designers facilitating observations and discussions with users to gain insights in both articulated and unarticulated needs.

Crowd sourcing was recently discussed by Jeff Howe of Wired Magazine in June 2006 with his article The Rise of Crowdsourcing. This concept is not necessarily new. I read a few years ago Murder, Insanity, and the Writing of the Oxford English Dictionary and there was a global call to contribute to the first modern dictionary.

However, the deep spread of the internet has allowed people to directly interact with companies to provide feedback and help design existing products and services. Focusing communities of interest around their knowledge and expertise and iterating variations with standardized components (like surface design on t-shirts and gym shoes) and having online voting or based on purchasing behaviors, have the “better” strains rise to the top is an intriguing trend:

Threadless, a Chicago-based T-shirt maker whose design process consists entirely of an online contest is a good example of this trend. DaWanda’s Style Lab section, consumers can create products with their own individual style and have them made to order. (from

Crowd sourcing does need to be managed, and is not as ad-hoc as it may sound. Companies manage these communities for maximum impact of user-centered innovation. There are more sophisticated strains of focused crowd sourcing around more complex opportunities:

RedesignMe is a great Dutch website that is now engaging with product manufacturers to establish “RDM Challenges,” through which a new product concept is presented and the site’s 1,000 or so active members are asked to react to it. In exchange, they are rewarded with RDMs—RedesignMe’s online currency, which is convertible into products in the online RDM Shop such as mp3-players, game consoles and gift cards.

Elements, an eatery being planned to open next year in Washington. Crafted by a “beta community” of some 400 participants, Elements will serve raw and organic locally grown vegetarian food in an environmentally sustainable way.

What does this mean for designers? Precedent had positioned the designer as the arbiter of function and form. Rehabilitated or new products were completed by designers and brought to market. Crowd sourcing is in certain ways disintermediating the role of designer by going direct to customers to have them create new or revised design strains.

An interesting company that is taking crowd sourcing to another level is Kluster. They have created Private Klusters designed to enable collaborative brainstorming on myriad different questions by allowing invited participants to share their opinions on a relevant, customized set of criteria. a nonprofit that lets any individual or journalist post an idea for an untold story in the local community. Professional journalists then write pitches based on those ideas and place them in the site’s wiki, where members of the community can view them and vote—via micro-pledge—on the stories that are most important to them. began as a crowdsourcing community using the wisdom of crowds based approach to discover new business and technology ideas.

Designers embraced ethnographic and observational research to create new objective skills to experience what is and look for pattern and opportunity. With crowd sourcing, the role of the designer will need to be delineated as a type of reasoned broker to sort and prioritize a community’s ideas.

Are the aggregated power of crowds a wise resource for companies? For simple solutions, creating different variations can provide needed diversity for products where customers want many alternatives.  For more complex problems and ideas where there are many variables, I believe that this model can easily fall apart. There are too many levels and ways to interpret and approach something to bring desired value.

I have not really heard the design community address the effect and challenges of crowd sourcing. When Larry Keely edited a Society of Typographic journal named “People, Not Markets”, he emphasized that designers need to address the real needs of people not the marketing needs of companies. Twenty years later, we are moving in the right direction.

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