Step by Step: The Incremental Approach to Crowdsourcing

1 Apr

Do you like electronic music? If so, listen to this new Avicii song, “X You”:

As you may have guessed, crowdsourcing produced this song. Avicii spent the last three months collecting musical samples from his fans, evaluating them, and presenting the best ones back to the crowd for them to pick their favorite. Bit by bit, from bassline to breakdown, his fans created one of the first crowdsourced pieces of music.

I’m calling this method the incremental approach to crowdsourcing; it involves a time-consuming but vigorous process of polling, discussion, and idea submission, with each cycle adding a tiny bit to the final product. It’s not the easiest or most resource-conservative way to crowdsource, but when the planets align and the controlling entity jumps into it with both feet, it can provide truly dazzling results.

Take Wizards of the Coast (WotC), for example, the company that makes the popular trading card game Magic: The Gathering. They recently started the fourth iteration of their “You Make The Card” campaign, which allows fans to help them create a card that will appear in a future release. We’ve also seen this approach utilized by Nissan, who used the help of their Facebook fans to build a limited-release performance racing vehicle. In both campaigns, the company built something great by letting their fans choose what went into it with a multi-step process that took several months.

How It Works

All three of these campaigns followed a shockingly uniform series of steps. The contest begins with the most general parts of the project and moves to the specific. For Avicii, the beginning was the song’s melody; WotC started with the card type, and Nissan first asked for an exhaust system that would do justice for the car’s engine. The crowd voices their opinion on which of several options should go onto the next round, and then the next piece is selected to be added on. More discussion, more voting, more submissions; rinse and repeat until you have a complete product.

It’s important to note here the distinction between incremental and iterative development. Both consist of several periods of discussion, voting, and designing; the main difference is what is produced at each step. Incremental development adds a new thing to the project each time; a new sound effect to a song, or a new ability on a card, or a new set of tires on a car. Iterative development, by contrast, would design the entire product at once, and then make it a little bit better better with each progressive pass. This is sometimes the method used to create Wikipedia pages, in which a heap of information is dumped onto a blank page and slowly pared down, edited, formatted, and given citations in the coming days.

What Makes It Great

The incremental approach isn’t for everyone; you need a ready-built fanbase that is not only numerous, but dedicated. Avicii is one of the most popular DJs in the world, Nissan is a multi-billion-dollar auto-industry leader, and Magic: The Gathering players have been dutifully flipping cardboard for the last 20 years. Because of this, these entities can afford to hold a contest that stretches out over months, where those less popular may find their crowds losing steam after the first few weeks.

Additionally, when designing a product where every piece of it needs to work well with every other piece, the incremental approach ensures that the crowd doesn’t get ahead of itself and the work is easy enough to swallow. If WotC had attacked this project using the iterative approach, they would have faced the tremendously difficult task of sorting through several thousand card submissions, some of which likely being completely unusable. By instead uniting its crowd on each consecutive step, WotC streamlines the conversation surrounding its project and focuses its audience on the task at hand, while not losing sight of the upcoming steps and the end goal.

Compare this to a project where each piece is designed individually. It’s been said (but never concretely attributed) that a camel is a horse designed by committee. This brings to mind a product that is designed simultaneously by several entities that have conflicting interests in the final outcome; some may want it to have functionality or features that the other groups aren’t interested in or actively oppose. In this manner, parallel design by many sub-groups of a crowd can create a product that while unique and novel, doesn’t really accomplish any one goal to a satisfactory degree.

It also helps that all three of the entities I am using for examples show great adhesion to the three tenets of successful crowdsourcing, as I’ve mentioned before with WotC and Nissan. Avicii also hits all the marks of incentive, barrier to entry, and compartmentalization; his fans are more than willing to put in the effort for the chance to hear something they created get blasted on the radio or through nightclub speakers, the submission process for samples was simple and available on social media channels Avicii’s fans frequented, and the incremental approach ensured that each new piece of music was carefully planned and fit with everything before it.

The Juice is Worth The Squeeze

I would love to see more companies use this approach in the future to replace the standard “contest” model of crowdsourcing that really only allows input from one creative mind. The incremental approach is truly the right choice for entities that want to tap into the collective knowledge of their entire crowd, with an added bonus of collecting market research as they go. Even if Nissan doesn’t end up using Exhaust System C, they will still know what their fans think of it after the contest is completed. WotC’s You Make The Card not only gave them the final product, but also inspired entire mechanics that went on to become very well-loved.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve seen a company use this approach to achieve great (or not-so-great) results, or if there’s someone who you think would benefit from changing their approach to this one.

Continuum’s Crowdsourced Fashions are Hit or Miss

19 Mar

Continuum

With an industry as fickle, high-minded, and individualistic as fashion, one would think leaving the big decisions to the crowd would be a good way to fast-track your designs to the bargain bin. But Continuum Fashion hopes to change the game through technology by boldly incorporating webapps, 3D printing, and user-generated content into their design processes. Their website is a collection of projects: the custom-clothing line Constrvct, the 3D-printed N12 bikini and Strvct shoe line, and the D.dress app for creating your own Little Black Dress.

The Constrvct and D.dress webapps serve as a pertinent example of how fashion can be crowdsourced, with Constrvct being the most promising section of the Continuum arsenal. Constrvct is a webapp that allows you to order highly customized clothing. The user specifies their personal bodily dimensions and uploads a photo to be used as a graphic print, and Continuum will fabricate and print the final design, in addition to hosting it on their site for others to purchase.

constrvct_designs1This isn’t so much a new idea as it is a well-polished combination of several already-extant ideas. There have been several websites in the past that allow users to order custom-fitted clothing or to create clothing with their own personal designs. Constrvct just combines these two ideas, along with featuring well-liked designs on their homepage for others to customize and purchase. There is no particular design direction that seems more popular than another, either. Designs range from mirrored patterns to full-garment prints of art that looks like a cathedral ceiling, a variety which only serves to highlight the wide range of tastes present in the Constrvct community.

N12-detail

The N12 and Strvct shoe line do not incorporate large aspects of crowdsourcing (yet) and are instead notable for their conceptual design and unique construction. Both the shoes and the bikini are made completely through 3D printing, with the exception of the shoe soles and leather lining. They are visually striking, but an informal poll among my fashion-minded Facebook friends reveals precious little else past the initial impression.

“While it is innovative, in terms of design the only thing that makes the bikini special is the material and how it was constructed,” confirmed Amanda Finesse, fashion model/designer and winner of the 2009 American Mall Model Search. “With the runway, it’s more about how it looks, and I don’t see them translating well for photo shoots either.”

Erica Regelin, owner and lead designer at Hull Street Studio, believes the N12 bikini to be a “weird novelty item you wouldn’t really wear to the beach. But then again, it opens a lot of doors to the possibilities of what you could make with a 3D printer.” Regelin was much more optimistic about the Strvct shoes: “Every woman on this planet would love to print her own shoes in her own house! Plus they could be designed to your exact foot shape and be far more comfortable than a lot of shoes out there.”

Pictured: a dress, sadly.

Pictured: a dress, sadly.

The D.dress app, on the other hand, is very high-concept but falls short on the execution. The project is centered around the app software, in which the user draws a dress that the program will then make through a process of 3D modeling, laser cutting, and triangulation. The result is… well, it’s not pretty. As cool as the idea of being able to sketch out your own Little Black Dress is, the end results look angular, frumpy, and uninteresting; one of my friends compared them unfavorably to crumpled sleeping bags or bad quilting. I understand the draw behind the creation of a system such as this, but I ultimately fear that the technology just isn’t yet at a point where dress sketches can be automatically translated into real garments without some severe hits to quality.

So, more than half a year after my admission of ambivalence over the state of crowdsourced fashion, nothing has really changed. In the space of a single studio’s website, we have examples of the wonderful and imaginative designs that I dreamed could come out of crowd creation, and we also have the “tries to hit too many targets” approach that ends up missing the majority of them. At any rate, we’ll never get anywhere by not pushing boundaries, and sometimes you need to crowdsource just to see what you’ll come up with. I applaud the efforts of Continuum Fashion, and I can’t wait to see how they further the future of garment fabrication.

It’s Back! Magic: The Gathering Announces You Make The Card 4

12 Mar

Image © 1995-2013 Wizards of the Coast LLC

Turns out the number-one cure for the Mondays is your favorite company announcing the revival of an incredibly popular and successful crowdsourcing campaign. Game company Wizards of the Coast announced today that their trading card game Magic: The Gathering, of which I am a huge fan, would be beginning the fourth iteration of their You Make The Card (YMTC) project, starting immediately. Using the ideas and voting power of their fans, Wizards will create a brand-new card that will be released in a future set.

Like the last few contests, YMTC4 will involve an iterative approach. One decision at a time will be presented to the fans, and they will discuss, submit ideas, and vote on that aspect before moving onto the next one. This campaign starts with deciding what card type this card will be; the first three campaigns began by choosing the card’s color or art. It’s similar to the approach Nissan used when soliciting the crowd’s help to design a car.

I’ve previously discussed the past YMTC campaigns, so I’ll take this space to briefly reiterate why they were so popular and such a good example of a company effectively reaching out to their audience. Wizards expertly hits all three of the tenets of successful crowdsourcing:

  • Since Magic research and development is usually very secretive and confidential, fans are incentivized by the rare and significant opportunity to be this closely involved
  • The iterative way in which the contest is compartmentalized prevents the people running it from being overwhelmed with too many disparate ideas, and ensures that each part of the card will work properly with the previously-designed parts
  • Hosting the campaign on the official website ensures that only people who are already sufficiently interested in Magic will find it, and that they will also have access to the massive archive of articles about Magic design that are hosted there.

I can’t wait to see what kind of crazy card we end up with when this contest is over. The first three cards designed by YMTC were fun to build decks around and provided effects that were previously underexplored in the game, so there’s no reason to believe this one won’t do the same.

Get in on the contest while it’s fresh and new by voting in the first phase and following the contest on Twitter under the #ymtc tag, and then pop down to the comments to tell me what kind of cool card you hope will be designed in the upcoming weeks.

 

EDIT 3/18/12 4:30pm EST: Thank you Maro for retweeting my article, and welcome all followers of Maro on Twitter!

Crowdfunding Crash Course: How To Make Your Campaign A Successful One

6 Feb

Marguerite Caruana Galizia - CrowdfundingI used to have a sort of embargo against articles about crowdfunding. It wasn’t that I didn’t see a place for it, or thought it was an illegitimate way to make money; I just thought that there wasn’t really any depth to the topic worth talking about.

But, times change, and a few articles later, I find that crowdfunding has really come into its own as a subject worth introducing to my readers. To that end, I was thrilled when I discovered that a dancing blog, of all places, had written up an excellent guide on how someone with no knowledge of crowdfunding could set up a project and get their dreams funded. Below, you will find my summary of the guide’s sticking points, originally compiled by Marguerite Galizia and presented on her personal blog.

What is Crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding is a way to get your projects, personal campaigns, and product ideas funded without going to a wealthy backer or company with deep pockets, and anyone with a dream and a video camera can do it.

Through sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and GoFundMe, users can create “project pages” where they show their idea to the world. These pages typically consist of a video, showing off the idea and its creator, and a written statement that goes into a little more detail. They specify their goal, or how much money they need to fully find their project, and a time frame for completion. The public views these entries, and donates money to those that they wish to see carried through. They are rewarded for donating certain amounts with a gift from the project creator, usually some sort of token of esteem or similar “thank you”. Depending on the site this project is posted on, the creator may get to keep all the money they’ve been given, or may only get paid if their project reaches its goal amount.

Step 1: Choosing Your Platform

When starting your campaign, the first thing to decide is where to host it. There are a multitude of crowdfunding sites available, and more keep popping up every day, so this is not a decision to be taken lightly. When choosing a site, one should consider factors such as the fees involved, the site’s level of professionalism, the countries the platform caters to, and which types of projects the site has made successful in the past.

Galizia’s article goes into more detail on things like the fee structures of these sites, if you’re curious, but the important thing to remember is to find a site that looks like a good fit for whatever type of project you’re doing. If you’re trying to start an art school, sites that fund scientific discoveries probably won’t do you much good. Similarly, if the site you’re using isn’t doesn’t provide service to your country, you’ll likely find it impossible to get any funding at all.

Step 2: Make Your Pitch

Arguably the most important step! Your pitch will introduce your idea to the world, and more importantly, it will introduce you to your potential donors. The strength of your pitch can make or break a campaign, so it’s important to make sure there are a few things you absolutely don’t miss. First among those is to have a clearly defined goal; your aim should be a finished, tangible thing that other people can use or consume. This can be a finished product, a book or movie, or even an entire company, but few people will fork over their money for the promise of things to come. Have something to show for your campaign when it’s over.

Also important to include in your pitch is some personal background on your project and yourself. Nothing opens wallets faster than when someone feels personally involved in your project, so start by making them personally involved in you! Explain your passion in a way that is simple and genuine, and emphasize that your donors are investing not only in the finished project, but in your own future. If they fund this project, who knows what else they’ll see from you someday!

Finally, choose your rewards carefully. For some donors, the rewards provide a large portion of their incentive to help, so make it worth their while. This doesn’t mean pull out all the stops, of course; your budget is obviously limited if you’re crowdfunding in the first place! But it does mean to cater your rewards to your audience. Galizia emphasizes that you should offer “bragging rights” rewards over “involvement” rewards. What this means is that people want to show off that they helped the project, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be a direct part of it. Put their name in the credits, or send them a prop from your movie, or a signed picture from the people involved, but don’t ask them to, for example, put their lives on hold to appear in a cameo role.

Step 3: Promote, Promote, Promote!

If you’ve got your pitch all set up, your final step is to get that page in front of as many eyes as humanly possible before your campaign ends. For someone who doesn’t have extensive experience in promotion, where to begin could be a bit of a mystery, but rule of thumb says to start with people you know. Friends and family are already invested in your future, and early donations from them will appear on your page and help your project gain traction.

Standard print materials can also be a good bet. Having a physical flyer or card to hand to your personal contacts could encourage them to tell someone else about it, with the added bonus that they don’t have to memorize the project’s details. Posters could also be a good bet, especially if they are displayed in areas where people likely to support your project gather. And there’s always real-world newspapers, which may be interested in running a story or advertisement calling attention to your campaign. Besides, senior citizens read newspapers, and they’ve got that retirement money.

Naturally, there is also the Internet and social media, which are as always fantastic channels for spreading the word. Facebook and Twitter blasts will make sure your followers are aware of what you’re doing, and that they can in turn tell their friends about it. You can also locate online communities, forums, and blogs that may be interested in your project, and make posts on their sites promoting your idea. You could even start your own blog about the project, which has the dual benefit of providing publicity and keeping your donors abreast of current project developments.

Go Forth and Get Funded!

If ideas are the only currency you trade in (out of necessity), crowdfunding is a great way to get your name out there, promote your dreams, and have a ready-made fanbase when your project comes to fruition. I’d like to thank Marguerite Galizia for putting together a great guide on the subject, which again, you should view in its original form if you’d like more information on any part of this guide.

Until next time, may the crowd be ever in your favor!

 

Casey Armstrong: Saving The World, Going Open-Source, Turning People Into Robots

23 Jan

Casey Armstrong, VineStove founderCasey Armstrong has been a busy man. Formerly the content director at Daily Crowdsource, Armstrong has recently founded his own company, VineStove. A crowd labor/ microtasking site at heart, VineStove’s general essence is similar to that of Amazon Mechanical Turk, ShortTask, or Fiverr. People post jobs or tasks for others to carry out, and pay them a small amount for doing so. These are tasks that can typically be completed in the ballpark of five minutes; example tasks on VineStove’s homepage include photoshopping an image or researching payment plans.

The thing that sets VineStove apart from those sites, however, is the fact that all the work is done on a strictly volunteer basis. Payment is still rendered, but instead of going to the person doing the work, it’s donated to a charity or nonprofit organization of the worker’s choice. And according to Armstrong, the companies are “doing some pretty cool things. I just added the SENS Foundation, for example; they work on longevity research. Channeling money to them means we all get to live a little longer!”

Casey’s Gift To The World

There’s another layer to Armstrong’s world-saving scheme. In addition to providing labor and funding for these foundations, he intends to eventually make VineStove open-source, allowing anyone with adequate interest to have access to the entirety of code he uses to run his site.

“The end game for me is really the open-source project,” Armstrong affirms. “I want to see microtasking get big and mature faster. I am addicted to sites like mTurk and Quora,  and microvolunteering sites like Sparked; I want microtasking to become a part of everything, really.”

He sees the open-source release of VineStove to be an important step in the process. “It might seem like a gutsy move, but I firmly believe that a crowdsourcing platform is about what you put into it, and not its clever construction or web development. I had struggled to build a microtasking site for years. It took me a lot of effort to learn web development, research my options, and plan it all out… I wish VineStove could have gone up in three clicks years ago.”

By releasing VineStove’s source code to the public, Armstrong’s intention is that anyone with a reasonable amount of dedication will be able to build a platform to serve their purposes, with minimal technical knowledge required. Like a true altruist, he hopes to render the hardships that he himself encountered in building his platform obsolete.

Right, But What’s This About Turning Folks Into Robots?

Getting a site ready to go open-source isn’t an easy task. It takes money, and for a small team like Armstrong’s, a certain amount of extra hands. And oddly enough, the solution to those problems can be found in the form of a crowdfunded robotic intern.VineStove campaign

I discussed crowdfunding a little bit last week; it’s the process of soliciting funding for a project from good-hearted denizens of the Internet instead of trying to get a big corporation or fatcat to bankroll the whole thing. Armstrong’s current project on RocketHub intends to do just that, providing the capital to make VineStove open-source through donations by people like you and me.

The robotic intern is the reward. Donate at least $5, and you’ll earn the ability to join Armstrong in his team on the project by piloting the robot as a proxy. You’ll be able to freely move around the VineStove office, interact with the staff, help out with the website, or even just drive the thing into Casey’s foot for half an hour (if that’s your thing).

While the ability for VineStove to get a different intern with a different skill set each day is one that will undoubtedly add some flexibility to Armstrong’s team, he also states that the project has an aspect of novelty as well. “The robot idea is mostly just fun. I don’t know where it will lead. However, I’m a believer in the internet spilling out into the real world, and I think we’re going to see more internet controlled robots in the future,” Armstrong says. He went on to reference similar projects in the past, particularly one in which mTurk allowed people to remotely control a robotic arm to perform common household tasks.

Become a Member of Team Armstrong

If any bit of this sounds appealing to you, know that there is more than ample opportunity for you to join in and help Casey save the world. With a little more than two weeks left in the funding campaign, there’s plenty of time to donate and help bring microtasking to the masses. If you’ve got a unique set of skills, you can put them to work by signing up to be one of the robotic interns, or just using VineStove itself to do some good-old charity work; all you need is a Facebook registration.

Whether you want to live forever, build your own thriving online community, or just mess around with a robot for a few hours, Casey Armstrong has you covered, and the world is better off because of it.

Hallelujah The Hills’ Ryan Walsh Releases His Crowd-Composed Song

18 Jan

Ryan Walsh of Halellujah The Hills

Some time ago, I interviewed Ryan Walsh, the lead singer and guitarist for the indie band Hallelujah The Hills. He had just begun a project, presented by Surviving The World, that asked fans to submit their own musical interpretation of the phrase “You can escape your fate, but it’s not considered polite.” Walsh would then mix all of the submissions into a single, cohesive track, essentially creating an entirely crowdsourced composition.

He finally released the finished track earlier this week, so I sat down to hear his thoughts about the creation process, what about the project surprised him, and how he thought the world would receive it.

  • I never thought this would garner me much press.  It’s an artistic experiment!
  • The bulk of the actual hands-on work was creating this massive sound collage using Audacity, and keeping track of which songs I had already used and which ones I still needed.
  • I ended up receiving about 100 tracks. That would explain the exorbitant amount of time it took me to finish.
  • I loaded the tracks onto my iPod and started playing them during car rides. I made notes about which ones were super melodic, or haunting, or ones that might make good background samples.
  • In truth, there was a lot of chin scratching.  Like, “What do I do with all these wildly different mini-songs?”
  • I originally thought this would be more of a song-song. I had dreams of changing them to all be in the same key and making it a more straightforward thing.
  • That plan quickly crumbled.
  • I went back to the drawing board and began to arrange the tracks in a more showcase style.  Like, “here is what people did with this.”
  • To put a phrase out there in the ether and have it come back at you like this is a particularly odd feeling. It feels like I put a message in a bottle out to sea and 100 bottles came back with strange reinterpretations of my original message.
  • When I finished the track, it was nothing at all like I imagined it would end up. I kind of chuckled and thought, “I’m not sure what this thing is but I’m attracted to it on some level.”
  • There was uncertainty. Will this be pleasing to the contributors or worrisome? Will people who didn’t contribute enjoy this? Will it be interesting to people who don’t know the back story? Those types of questions.
  • The worry was mixed with delight, though, which is always a good sign.
  • I think that SoundCloud and the internet is the final destination for this piece.  The internet is global and forever, so that’s not too shabby of a permanent address. Plus, it was a creation of the internet. It’s like a hall of mirrors up in this piece!
  • Here’s the thing: this piece might not be a toe tapper, but I did make it for people to enjoy! Some people have different definitions of enjoyment, and I would gladly give all the original files to anyone who wants to take their own shot at it!
  • If I were to try this again, I think it’d be interesting to have people do melodic “ahhhhs” and work with that.  Or spoken word sentences based on certain rules and cut that all up.  Or maybe even some kind of video collage.
  • Right now, though, I gotta focus on recording the fourth Hallelujah The Hills album. I’m using all my skills and spirit to make it! It will be nothing like this piece, but the phrase does appear in one of the new songs.
  • It’s not all about page views and hits! I just do what I love.  I loved making this thing, and that’s kind of all I need.

Here is the final arrangement, which Walsh describes as similar to a “hypnotic, off-brand meditation tape one might accidentally find at a thrift store.”

CrowdsUnite Is Your One-Stop Shop for Crowdfunding

16 Jan

CrowdsUnite

Attention entrepreneurs! CrowdsUnite has emerged as a deadly useful new service, making its way onto the scene with the intention of connecting you with the perfect platform for crowdfunding your dream business, product or artistic endeavor.

What is crowdfunding, you may ask? A fair question; it’s a topic I’ve only addressed a couple times on this blog. Crowdfunding is a specific type of crowdsourcing that aims to change the way that large projects receive funding. Instead of the people behind these projects appealing to an official board or a wealthy corporation for their startup money, they turn the challenge to the “crowd”.

Crowdfunding sites typically consist of a large collection of project plans, and allow individuals browsing the site to donate money to projects they wish to see carried out. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are two of the most popular of these brand of sites; Kickstarter users alone pledged over $319 million in 2012.

In addition, users typically receive some sort of compensation in exchange for their donation to up-and-coming projects. Kickstarter and Indiegogo projects offer prizes to donors depending on how much money they chip in; the looser your purse-strings, the greater the reward. Other sites offer a return on your investment once the project takes off, and still others even offer equity, allowing you to share in your project’s success.

CrowdsUnite aims to become the main compendium of crowdfunding sites. “What Amazon did for retail, we want to do for the crowdfunding industry,” says Alex Feldman, the CEO and founder of CrowdsUnite. Since many crowdfunding platforms are specifically geared towards certain types of projects, and since more of them keep popping up every day, a single place where they are all collected, sorted, and categorized is extremely useful. In the future, Feldman says he hopes that CrowdsUnite will be the first stop for any individual who wants to find the perfect platform to start their crowdfunding campaign.

The site’s features, while constantly improving, are already quite robust. All of the most popular and successful platforms have detailed profile pages on CrowdsUnite, where potential campaign managers can view information such as fee structure, the nature of how the platform handles compensation, and if the platform is specific to certain countries. Additionally, CrowdUnite’s visitors can view reviews, comments, and articles  for each platform, submitted by their fellow users. Possibly the most useful feature is the ability to compare two or more platforms side-by-side to see how they stack up against each other.

If you’d like to help CrowdUnite on its way to becoming the go-to Wikipedia for crowdfunding, the best thing to do it hop over to the site and register an account. Fleshing out the information on various platforms by submitting content is a great way to get your favorite platform noticed and discover new ones. Feldman also adds that he is looking for business partners; if you are an industry professional or consultant that wants to explore the crowdfunding space, the relationship that CrowdsUnite holds with these platform administrators would be useful to you.

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