Helping The Crowd Effect Change

February 6, 2011 | Present, Special

The Johnny Cash Project - users contribute frames for the video

Over the past couple years there’s been a lot of buzz around crowdsourcing. There’s a real believe that it has the potential to transform everything — from how agencies work for clients, to how customers interact with brands.

My Starbucks Idea

And, as everyone explores how “the crowd” can participate, a wide variety of pretty cool things (can we call them experiments?) have come along… creating new content (The Johnny Cash Project), design contests (BBHLabs logo), to change the world (Good Project), asking customers for new ideas (My Starbucks Idea & Mozilla’s Design Challenge), opening the agency (OpenIDEO), and even turning the crowd into the agency (Victors & Spoils).

OpenIDEO - Timeline shows the milestones of idea development

To support all this a wealth of new tools and platforms have been developed to “harness” the crowd. The general model behind them is to publish “tasks” and then get people to contribute to them in small chunks (think Amazon’s Mechanical Turk), or to submit proposed solutions (there’s lots of these, including Jovito, crowdSPRING, and InnoCentive).

CrowdSPRING - being used for a logo design contest

But the resulting experiences often lack a feeling of real engagement. Why? Because user actions are fairly singular: you submit an idea, perform a task, vote, or comment. Even on sites where a user may get feedback to modify their submission, they’re still working alone on their task, not collectively with crowd. Every action is a kind-of shot-in-the-dark.

Crowdsourcing may produce a lot of raw content, but in order for people to feel involved, to have a reason to return — and to have the quality of the content improve — there needs more interaction, iteration and refinement. This is especially true if we want to change our experiences with brands. If it is to become one of collaboration and partnership then we have to give the crowd greater responsibilities. ‘Common,’ part of the FearLess Revolution, proclaims: “Having the world we want will not come from ‘voting’ for it.”

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, Fred Dust talked about using design thinking to solve hard design problems. He points out how our current thinking is preventing us from truly tapping into people’s potential. Fred says, “we assume that most of our world is consumption — that most of our world is service. That things are meant to be given to us. That things should be easy.” But this is in conflict with the actuality where “Things that require the most change, require the most work from us.” His solution: “we need to move consumption to participation.”

ExpertNet - part of the Open Government Initiative

Crowdsourcing has been a good start. But to solve the harder, more interesting, problems we should look at the open source and open content communities. Wikipedia and Firefox are just two examples of massive and complex undertakings successfully developed by crowds. The underdevelopment ExpertNet, part of the US Open Government Initiative, looks to do the same at a country-scale. And the much smaller scale jsdo.it lets people collaborate on Javascript code.

Wipedia Page's edit history visualiation - showing lots of changes by lots of contributors

One of the key challenges with taking the open source approach mainstream, is the complexity of its current tools. For example, Wikipedia’s “history” pages don’t make it easy for the uninitiated to understand how an entry has evolved. And Mozilla’s tools, Bugzilla and Bonsai, are equally “professional only” (ie. hardcore).

Bugzilla - bug report and tracking

Looking at ten years of Bugzilla data, Diederik van Liere noted a couple interesting findings about that community:

  • Retention of community members is key
  • Get community members through the learning curve asap

If want people to participate we need better tools. Especially if we want open source approaches to appeal to wider audiences. Here, then, are just a couple ideas to move us towards that goal:

  • Harness some of the visualization and communication design talent out there. Take a look at the work on Infosthetics and Information is Beautiful. Fantastic stuff. But search these sites and you’ll see that almost nothing has been done for open source communities.
  • Give people more ways to contribute. Most open source content to date has been text-based. But that’s not the only people exchange ideas and collaborate. Embrace images, video, and other media. (Think of a more problem-solving version of Layer Tennis.)
  • Bring the community forward. Working alone isn’t fun, and working alone isn’t collaborating. Use and build the energy of the crowd.
  • Make the tools easy to learn and easy to use. This isn’t just about visualizations, it’s about developing new UI approaches. It should encourage participation. Let people enjoy their interactions with the content, the system, and making changes.

Maybe this is just a rant of the obvious. Or a crazy mix of apples and oranges. Others have discussed this, too. But it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot this past week. And if we really want to make design smarter, and change how people participate, then we need to more actively explore open source… Move open-source approaches from specialized communities to the mainstream. Build better tools. Design engaging projects that will make a difference. And let us all build the world in which we want to live.

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