Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design

Curtis Franklin Jr., Executive Editor | 1/4/2013 | 12 comments

Curtis Franklin Jr.
New trends in design lead to new questions for OEMs. One is whether crowd sourcing can be a viable design process. The other is whether design lessons from small producers translate to large OEMs.

Crowd sourcing is one of those interesting terms that is used far more often than seems truly justified. What does the term really mean? The concept is simple, an expansion on the old "two heads are better than one" idea. With crowd sourcing, though, you're substituting dozens, scores, or even hundreds of heads for the single noggin of a designer.

It's a fascinating theory, but like so many aspects of teamwork, the effectiveness of crowd sourcing really boils down to execution.

If you think of crowd sourcing in terms of signal-to-noise ratio, the execution challenges become clear. Consider the sound of a high-school hallway between classes. Now, think of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus. These are two entirely different sounds: The first is produced by a chaotic crowd, the second emerges from a similar number of folks making a guided, rather less-chaotic sound.

Now, apply that concept to product design and you have the difference between a bunch of random people talking about your stuff and successful crowd-sourced design.

Ele Jansen has thought about what it takes to make a successful crowd-sourced design effort, and has written about her thoughts at She writes that there are four critical factors to consider if you want crowd-sourced design to succeed:

  • Structure -- You have to have a plan in place that allows crowd sourcing to succeed. Don't know how? See the fourth point, below.
  • Understanding -- You must understand what crowd sourcing can and can't do, what it can deliver, and how it can surprise you in good (and bad) ways.
  • Attitude -- If you and your organization are all about control, then crowd sourcing just isn't for you. At all. Period. You have to have a flexible attitude if you want to work with a crowd.
  • Education -- Crowd sourcing is, at its heart, about collaboration on a massive scale. Most organizations are, at best, semi-competent at collaboration. A move toward crowd sourcing can be the push your enterprise needs to educate itself and its employees about effective collaboration.

Of course, crowd sourcing has, to this point, been used primarily by small organizations -- companies that can't really afford a big design team. Can it work for a large organization? Depending on where you're located, a visit to one of the international DIY Days could help you figure it out.

While DIY sounds like an entirely individual or small-group activity, the conferences and study groups that surround these events could help you decide how (and whether) crowd sourcing might work as a design methodology for some of your projects.

Crowd sourcing for design isn't an "all or nothing" proposition. There are limitations to the approach, as well as significant opportunities. Consider trying a crowd-sourced approach, and use the experiment as an opportunity to learn more about your customers, your organization, and collaboration itself. Then let us know what you discover. It's the crowd-sourced way to go.

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Salik   Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design   1/8/2013 2:11:50 AM
Re: Crowd Sourcing
@Curtis, good point made about the cultural norms. I see OEM design to be quite helpful as it inspires the ethics of decision making - decisions taken at collective and majority stake rather over individualism - which in turn makes the crowd involves. Great choice.
Umair Ahmed   Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design   1/7/2013 6:46:10 PM
Re: Crowd Sourcing
Thanks Curtis. Crowd sourcing approach sounds great, but as you mentioned handling the variations and combining the thoughts of the crowd in one finest design would be the complex task. And I doubt that crowd sourcing can be a suitable approach for some projects which the enterprise wants to complete without letting the competitors to know about.
Sara Peters   Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design   1/7/2013 5:27:25 PM
Curt, as you say, crowd-sourcing doesn't need to be an all-or-nothing thing and if your organization is not willing to be flexible then crowd-sourcing is obviously not for you. I wonder though, if some crowd-sourcing failures are because an organization is TOO flexible. After all, designers can't please all people all of the time and it isn't always wise to try.
Sara Peters   Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design   1/7/2013 5:17:26 PM
good example
I know i've mentioned them before, but is a great example of crowd-sourced design in practice. We talked about it with their director of tech, Nathan Smith, on a video symposium a few months ago.
CurtisFranklin   Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design   1/7/2013 3:42:16 PM
Re: Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design
@tekedge, I'd say that there is overlap between the two concepts, though they try to do different things. Open Source is really about licensing and intellectual property while crowd-sourcing is much more concerned with the process by which a decision is made -- the results of the decision can be entirely proprietary.

Some Open Source projects have strong crowd-sourced features while others are the product of a strong central vision that is released to the public in an open-source licensing agreement. I'll agree that what happens after the original is released can bear a great relationship to crowd-sourcing, but I still think that the two concepts are attacking different parts of the overall product creation problem.
CurtisFranklin   Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design   1/7/2013 3:39:17 PM
Re: Crowd Sourcing
@Salik, the concept should be the same wherever you go -- the "wisdom of the crowd" will, on average, exceed the wisdom of any individual. We've already seen this applied in China in entertainment programs similar to the "Star Search" or "American Idol" sort of thing. I believe that the vast difference will come in precisely how the project would be managed. Some cultures are more accustomed to taking part in decisions than are others, and the cultural norms would have to be respected in order for the process to really work.
tekedge   Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design   1/7/2013 2:54:29 PM
Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design
@Curtis - Thanx for explaining the Crowd Sourcing terminology. How close is this to or have similarities with the Open Source concept?
Salik   Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design   1/7/2013 10:33:38 AM
Re: Crowd Sourcing
Crowd sourcing is very beneficial and the next big thing with its advantages such as having a low cost workforce and more concentration on brand development, but is it universal? I mean, could same trends and patterns be applied to all parts of the world such as China? The people residing in China are more oriented towards producing more and more without having much idea about the business concepts in general. Is this a viable technique in such places too?
CurtisFranklin   Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design   1/7/2013 9:24:45 AM
Re: Crowd Sourcing
Glad you liked it, @robertwm. Have you participated in any crowd-sourcing activities, as either manager of the process or a participant in the crowd? What do you think -- is this the sort of idea that you see scaling up to meet enterprise needs?
CurtisFranklin   Crowd Sourcing for OEM Design   1/7/2013 9:23:27 AM
Re: Crowd Sourcing
@Umair, I think that real crowd sourcing has to include people from outside the company. The idea is that the "group intelligence" grows with the size of the group. If you let hundreds or thousands of people participate in the decisions, then you should be able to smooth out the variations in individual intelligence and arrive at something resembling an optimal solution.

That's the theory -- it's going to be interesting to see how different organizations put it into practice when it comes to product design!
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