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Tuesday, 10 March, 2009

Crowdsourcing with CAUTION !!

A Crowd at the Market

A lot is being said about "crowdsourcing" almost everyday, and more and more entrepreneurs are jumping onto the crowdsourcing bandwagon. There is however, need for caution.

Just as the banking and financial services industry in the US jumped on the sub-prime lending bandwagon leading to the crisis we face in the world economy today, any "fad" needs to be taken up with caution. This moment of economic crisis should teach us not to evaluate options based on short-term gain, but do a careful evaluation of its long-term implications before taking it up.

I have been evaluating crowdsourcing with respect to the design of software products, which is my area of work, and I would welcome suggestions and more thoughts on this.

Design broadly consists of four major phases:

1. An initial understanding phase, where a designer employs various tools at her disposal to understand the needs of users of the product and society in general,

2. A second divergent ideation phase, where ideas are generated,

3. A third convergent phase where the final solution is chosen, and

4. A final implementation phase.

One can package this in many different ways, but the essential activities in design will typically conform to these four phases.

It is the second phase of ideation, that typically holds the potential of being crowdsourced. If you are creating a product or service and need ideas, it does make sense to crowdsource. The ideation phase is afterall a divergent phase and you need to explore. You can hire a consultant and pay money to do this exploration or use the crowd for free to do the same - either way you will need to explore ideas. There is just one small glitch - you will end up getting a lot of ideas that are grounded in different contexts and not in the context your business might be oriented towards. This will happen, because the crowd will typically not have done the first phase of understanding your users. You will therefore need to sieve through the ideas and take those that fit your context, when you move to the next converging phase of arriving at a solution.

Therefore, in the third phase of converging towards a solution, you will need expert advice. A deluge of ideas from the crowd can be overwhelming, if you don't know how to sieve through them and you might end up losing your way, and even going away on a tangent that is detrimental to your business model. Therefore, for the third phase of arriving at a solution, you will need an expert designer to bring all the ideas together and connect the dots, using tools and experience at her disposal. Crowdsourcing will provide you with "opinion", but you will need "informed opinion" to make decisions.

Similarly, in the first phase of understanding user needs and studying it in the context of society and the business, you will need an expert who can use the necessary tools at his disposal to capture these needs with the right amount of empathy and understanding, both of which take years to imbibe.

Again, in the final implementation phase, you will need an expert to plan and implement this design - it is a fine balancing act of all the constraints at hand, and comes only with training and experience.

Crowdsourcing enthusiasts, whom I have read so far, seem to be so gung-ho about cost savings in the short-term, that they seem to have ignored all these aspects in their espousal, and this can be dangerous. Traditionally, not having done enough home-work upfront has meant doing multiples of that work down the line - cost savings upfront is a myth that results in more expensive rework later with much pain and hardship as well.

As I see more and more entrepreneurs and enterprises jumping onto the crowdsourcing bandwagon to get design done, I am concerned. I worry that this mad rush will leave most entrepreneurs with burnt fingers and products with lost opportunities that can affect society adversely in the long run. Creating and supporting the creation of good products is not an obligation, but it is necessary for the well-being of each and every one of us. We don't need an economic recession to tell us, that we were wrong - we just need to be positively careful about the choices we make.

Since the fundamentals of product design, apply to all other forms of design - organizational and social - I am of the opinion that the application of crowdsourcing needs to be done with a lot of thought.

(Photo Credit: Christopher Augapfel, Flickr)

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