Tag Archives: Design

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.

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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.

I’m Not Sure How To Feel About Crowdsourced Fashion

21 Aug

ModCloth.com

Online clothing retailer ModCloth recently rolled out their Retro Honor Roll Collection, inspired by creations submitted by their community and supported by designs from the ModCloth co-founder. In terms of how I view crowdsourcing, I’m at a bit of an impasse in reacting to this development. Is fashion the sort of thing that can, or should, be crowdsourced?

The Argument in Favor

We’ve seen the success of crowdsourced clothing with our own eyes. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with Threadless, the community-inspired t-shirt outlet that some might say led the initial charge in crowdsourced fashion designs. In Threadless, we find a company that has leveraged an excellent community and a winning business model to make oodles (non-scientific term) of cash and some really exceptionally popular shirts. Additionally, their service often gives a leg-up to amateur designers, who may find stardom after their design gets approved.

ModCloth’s campaign also turned out very successful, with as much as 40% of the articles in stock selling out in the first day alone. Looking at the designs, one can’t help but offer a nod of approval; they don’t look like they were made by a committee of amateurs, but instead like any other professionally designed piece of apparel. In these examples, we see that crowdsourced clothing doesn’t have to be a disaster.

On the Other Hand…

Is this what you want?!

When I laid out what makes some crowdsourcing efforts successful, I made it a point to state that some industries are doomed from the start if they try to crowdsource because their areas of interest are too broad. Fashion dangerously straddles this line; not everyone is a fashionista, but the majority of people wear clothes and have some sort of opinion on them. In terms of crowdsourcing, this is a dangerous mix, since the design experts are the minority and the clothes-wearers are (for the most part) ignorant of what makes up “good fashion”. Make your contest too public, and you get swarms of people who think it would be a really great idea to have a plaid-and-polka-dot suit. Make it too private, and it may as well not exist.

Granted, this conundrum is not limited to the world of fashion, but it’s a little more tangible since (as I mentioned) the wearing of clothes is one thing that binds many of us together. Not only is it ubiquitous, but important; a large-scale shift in fashion can very well define an era. When something like this deeply affects everyone involved, crowdsourcing it could make people nervous. Think about it this way; would you want people crowdsourcing the quality of the air you breathe? The question of “what if they’re wrong?” looms large, and even a small chance of failure is enough to send many people in the opposite direction.

The Battle For Chic

Regardless of my feelings on the subject, crowdsourced fashion is here to stay. As with practically any other effort that asks for help from a crowd, said crowd is the main determinant of the campaign’s success. If you’re the type of person who’s fashion-minded, the best possible thing for you to do would be to sign up for as many of these sites as possible and lend them your good taste.

But if you’re like me, and your idea of fashion is “as long as my belt sorta matches my shoes, I’m home free”… well, maybe leave the fashion to the experts.

Nissan’s Crowdsourced 370Z Completed, Fans React

13 Aug

 

Finally! Since the earliest days of this blog, I’ve kept a close eye on Nissan’s crowdsourced project to have their fans help them design a car. Now, it’s finally here. After months of polling on Facebook, tweaking, and gathering results, Nissan finally showed off the fan-made build to the world with this video:

Over the weekend, I’ve been passing this video along, browsing car blogs, and generally trying to get a read on the reaction to this final product. It surprised me to find that the announcement isn’t getting much traction; even on the Nissan Performance Facebook page, the very place where fans designed the car, the announcement video barely has any comments (although it’s been shared a few times).

With this being said, here are some of the first impressions of the car:

  • Ugly/poor design. The fans don’t waste any time critiquing their own work. People will complain about anything, of course, but the general consensus is that there was a lack of an overall design goal, which is fundamentally true. Nissan could have avoided this by crowdsourcing a design goal as part of the project, but obviously it’s a little too late for that.
  • “I’ve already built this car.” A bit of a two-pronged comment. On one hand, this person is disappointed that the car isn’t anything out-of-this-world special. On the other hand, this was Nissan’s goal from the beginning; they wanted to use off-the-shelf parts so enthusiasts at home could build their own fan-inspired 370Z. Take this comment with a grain of salt.
  • We want more! By far the most repeated comment for the video was “That’s it?!” This does not represent a disappointment in the car, but a desire for more information. The fans want to see their car do some really impressive moves on a racetrack, and most of all, they want to hear what the engine sounds like. I can’t say I disagree with them; a performance vehicle should be performing if it’s being shown off.
  • Still pretty cool. Despite the complaining, reactions are generally positive. The novelty of this project helped a lot; many commenters were unaware that a project like this existed, and think it’s neat that Nissan stuck its neck out to trust its fans. The “you-can-build-your-own” aspect is also a big plus, especially since Nissan has no plans to mass-produce the car.

In summary, this was an excellent first crack at a crowdsourced vehicle, and Nissan is in a very good position if they want to try a project like this again. This 370Z seems to be the “Two and a Half Men” of cars; it’s nothing super-special but it’s generally liked because it doesn’t offend anyone. If Nissan wanted to do Attempt #2, they should start with a fan-chosen design goal and end with photos, videos, articles, statistics, sound bytes, and virtual shows spewing from every pore of the Internet. As a matter of fact, that’s my biggest complaint with this project. You and your fans have made something really cool, Nissan! Show it off and get people talking about it!

 

Ensure Maximum Swag By Designing Your Own Adidas Shades

19 Jul

 

Adidas Eyewear recently launched a contest on Talenthouse asking aspiring designers to help them create the next big thing in fashionable glasses.

The contest will consist of three winners: the Adidas design team will choose first and second place winners, who will receive public endorsement from Adidas and $3000 or $500, respectively. A “People’s Choice” prize of $500 will also be rewarded to the submission that receives the most public votes.

The main thing I like about this contest is Adidas’ tight compartmentalization. They realize that as a creative prompt, “design a pair of sunglasses” will result in many entries that are not at all what they’re looking for. To that end, they’ve limited the submissions to a single style of eyeglass, and have even provided a template for easy submission. Any good designer will tell you that restrictions breed creativity, and if it gets Adidas closer to the product they want, added bonus.

Submissions for this project are underway and end July 31st, at which point public voting will take up the first week of August. Winners will be announced on August 28th. Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to prove to the world the unblockability of your shine.

Make Your Idea A Reality With Quirky

17 Jul

I’m a sucker for platforms and campaigns that give people power where they previously had none, so it was practically a given that I would write about Quirky, a sort of supercharged Kickstarter for product designs.

Quirky

The idea is novel and has a lot of room for creative depth, but everything else is handled in a very standard fashion. Product ideas, as polished as 3D models or as crude as hand-drawn doodles, are submitted to Quirky and presented for public endorsement. You can vote on products you like, and if they get enough attention, they’re manufactured and sold on a wide scale thanks to Quirky’s deals with retailers like Toys R Us, Best Buy, Target, and Amazon.com. The creator of the product gets a very nice share of the profits, of course.

Like I said, as far as the process goes there isn’t a lot of new ground trodden.  We’ve seen a lot of platforms conform to the go-to “submit ideas, gather votes, they become a reality” process. What determines their success usually boils down to how easy the platform is to use and how tangible or exciting the results are.

To this end, I think we’ve got a winner with Quirky. They’ve already invented some really cool products, and more are always on the way. If you’ve been looking for the perfect place to launch your new product idea, Quirky is there to help you make it a reality, and yourself a rich person (hopefully).

What Wizard Battles Can Teach Us About Crowdsourcing

21 Jun

This is a re-hosting of an article I originally wrote for Microtask‘s blog.

I’d like to start with a confession: when I’m not thinking about crowdsourcing, I’m busy being a huge geek. Not trendy geek chic, unfortunately, but the old fashioned Heinlein-and-Nintendo type. Read on bearing this in mind.

My main vice is Magic: the Gathering, a role-play card game where players are magically-dueling wizards. The only game pieces are cards which represent classical magic spells like fire blasts and enchantments, you each have 20 life, and the first one to the bottom loses.

Image © 2011 Steven Huynh

Image © 2011 Steven Huynh

What does this have to do with crowdsourcing? Well, about 10 years ago, the company that makes this game turned to its fans the players, and for the first time said “you make a card”. What followed was almost a year of creative inspiration and community collaboration, resulting in two additional campaigns and a total of three extremely well-designed cards. Even today, any company that wants to tap into a crowd for creative purposes should look at Magic’s R&D team to see how to properly weigh a campaign’s incentives, barriers to entry and compartmentalization.

Incentives

Before the campaign, Magic’s design and R&D had always been very secretive and insular, a process conducted in such a manner that fans could neither observe nor contribute to it. Some fans turned to making their own custom cards, but they were never accepted, as Magic R&D was expressly forbidden from considering player-submitted cards. So basically here was a community that was intensely passionate, deeply creative but with no opportunity to participate in the design of the game.

In this situation, incentivizing crowd involvement was simply a matter of allowing it. That, and giving bragging rights to important people in the decision-making process, such as those who create the card’s name or key mechanic.

Barriers to Entry

The easiest way to build a useful crowd is to find one that already exists. Magic R&D turned to the community website and blog. They were keen fans and already had some understanding of the R&D and design process from blog posts on the subject. Multiplayer games like this generally have a strong community, so Magic R&D could also count on its players to get the word out.

Compartmentalization

A common problem with crowdsourced projects is that everyone works independently, only sharing work when it is finished. This causes a lot of duplication of effort and restricts collaboration. Magic R&D avoided this by breaking the design process into 24 collaborative steps.

By controlling the process like this, Magic R&D could keep their normal, iterative design process, which may involve a card being changed dozens of times before its final print. The forum discussions between each step also allowed the community to come to a better consensus on which direction to go, and identify potential problems early on. Finally, it ensured that both Magic R&D and the community were present at every step, designing together as a unit instead of pitted against each other.

The three crowdsourcing campaigns created three new cards. All had unique effects unlike any card seen before. All were highly rated on the official card database. Each successive campaign was bigger than the last, and now some fans are asking for a fourth.

All of this happened before crowdsourcing was really “a thing”. It shows that any brand with loyal fans (and some dedication) can create something great (even if they’re not following common practice because common practice hasn’t been invented yet).

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