Crowd sourcing – who is it good for?

Crowd sourcing is a way of releasing work to a large group of people, often via an online platform. It tends to be used either for repetitive tasks, for collecting distributed information or for creative tasks.

The best known example of crowd sourcing for repetitive tasks is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Amazon itself hires people via the platform on the perpetual task of classifying products, for which it pays 6 cents for a 10 minute task. If that sounds like an attractive work option for you, I have bad news, you’re not qualified. But you can get qualified by performing some lesser tasks to prove your ability to classify chairs as furniture.

The biggest example of crowd sourcing distributed information is wikipedia, but it’s also used in many other fields including a project in the Netherlands to crowd source AED (defibrilator) locations as presented Lucien Engelen at TEDx Maastricht.

For creative tasks platforms such as 99Designs offer a marketplace to crowd source graphic designs. You submit your design brief and the amount you want to pay, the designers on the platform create options for you and you pay the winner. For a few hundred dollars you may have a choice of a hundred logos. Other platforms work by matching you to a designer with the skills for the work you’re posting.

These developments have been positive for many companies, I’ve been able to have simple design work done via Elance, a crowd sourcing platform, faster and for much less than using in house design options. We’ve also started an internal “crowd sourcing” platform, we found a staff member to create a brochure, once created we crowd sourced translations – and got 9 languages in 2 days.

What’s wrong with crowd sourcing?

At Amazon Mechanical Turk there’s a pretty big power imbalance between the worker and the employer; employers define the pay rate, describe the work, and have the right to refuse the work as unacceptable with no feedback. But the workers of Mechanical Turk are starting to turn this around, they’ve united around the work practices and are using a platform, called turkopticon to rate the employer. According to New Scientist, other platforms are trying to provide more worker-friendly options; MobileWorks sets the price for workers and aims to attract a qualified virtual workforce.

In creative industries such as photography and design, crowd sourcing is having a negative impact in at least two ways. It is threatening the income of freelancers, and freelancing is a common form of work in these fields. As Wired reported back in 2006 the rise of photography sites such as iStockphoto, and more recently Flickr (now licensing images via Getty) is impacting photographers’ ability to make money from their work.

In the field of design it’s even more complicated, many of the sites run on a competition basis, so for the 100 designers submitting work, 99 do not get paid. This structure inherently puts professional designers off entering crowd source competitions. However the winners of many competitions, including the one featured at left for a Swiss hotel, do show skill in design and execution. While it’s not impossible to get a quality result, when I looked through a number of the competition entries it was pretty clear that some entrants were mistaking the ability to download photoshop for design talent.

The Logo Factory point to another disturbing aspect of crowd sourcing design; copyright. They’ve seen a number of entrants – including some winning entries – re-use logos created by their company. And sadly not even done well. Even big brands aren’t immune, Cadbury Ireland famously had to change the winner of a competition in 2010 due to plagiarism.

So who is crowd sourcing good for?

  • When it’s information being collated, probably all of us. Each contributor is volunteering a small amount of their knowledge and expertise for the greater good.
  • When it’s repetitive tasks, it’s currently benefiting the company – but as the balance of power shifts and workers gain some protection it can be a useful source of income.
  • When it’s creative tasks…. Good designers avoid the competition model, as the return for their work is low. If you’re a company look for platforms that match you to a designer rather than competition crowd sourcing options. You’ll pay a fair rate, and get better work.

crowdsourcing cartoon; Crowdsourcing /XKCD/ CC BY-NC 2.5


Sound Design

How well can you concentrate at work? in the classroom? In this speech Julian Treasure demonstrates how noise can make it harder for us to concentrate, and makes a plea for architects to consider sound in their designs.

It’s one of my regular complaints about modern design, my mother is deaf and wears a hearing aid most days. In most modern cafes she cannot hear what is going on due to the reverberation of sound from the ubiquitous hard surfaces and the music. I recently moved desks in my office just to get a slightly quieter work environment, and I live in an old house – I can hear way too much of my upstairs neighbour’s activities (especially when the football is on). Sometimes I put on some soothing classical music so that I can listen to that instead.

The design fashion for hard surfaces and open plan spaces can make it harder to concentrate, and that’s a loss of productivity in a work environment.

City Design for People

Living in cities and solving the space issues is becoming more important as the world’s population grows and is concentrated in cities. Here are some ideas that could solve these issues in the not too distant future.

I live in Amsterdam, a small city compared to most world capitals, but one that has adopted some of the ideas in this video, apartments are typically small – although those the new build projects are larger, most people cycle, and there are share car schemes already (Greenwheels and Car2Go for example).

My small apartment already multi-tasks on space use, but I would like to be able adapt my living room so that it became a spare room at the push of a button – as opposed to pulling an airbed out of the cupboard, inflating it, adding bedding, and having it deflate as the guest sleeps.

Infographics Rant

I am sick of infographics.

There I said it.

So what is an infographic? Wikipedia gives this definition;

Information graphics or infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge. These graphics present complex information quickly and clearly, such as in signs, maps, journalism, technical writing, and education. With an information graphic, computer scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians develop and communicate concepts using a single symbol to process information.

There are infographics that are useful, the stylised subway maps are much easier to use than a true and accurate map would be. They are also fantastic for visualising huge amounts of data, it would take volumes to convey the information that Hans Rosling gets across in his data visualisations. Here’s his explanation of improving health in history, but all his videos are fascinating.

Recently there has been a fashion for infographics, and there is now a plethora of infographics on every conceivable subject;

Social media seems to be a particularly fertile ground for infographics, with 29 million results for the search query “infographics social media” which is about 10 million more than for “infographics” alone. Here’s a selection from pinterest.

The use of infographics is spreading and some are now thinly disguised advertising material including the most pointless graphic I’ve found (so far) is the “what your luggage says about you” one. Which offers the startling conclusion that a woman with a stroller is a multi-tasking mum, someone with carry-on is on business, and someone with a backpack is not.

There are too many pointless infographics out there, ones that;

  • use very long images that require you to scroll to the bottom of the page,
  • that present data in rather suspect ways such as 3D bar graphs
  • make rather dodgy connections between data sets
  • present information that could as easily been presented in a single paragraph or a short list
  • one last complaint – what’s with the use of retro styling?

Just before I got completely fed up with infographics I found a fabulous selection of infographics that specifically mock infographics. Very meta, very 2012.


image infographics

Design Fail

About 4 website generations ago, ie; circa 2006, there was a fashion in design of internet sites to disguise the website’s navigation in an image, with the navigation text only revealed on mouse over. A style named “Mystery Meat Navigation” by Vincent Flanders who has preserved some extreme examples on his aptly named “Web Pages That Suck” site.

It was bad, impossible to use from the user’s perspective, like having blank signs on the motorway. Thankfully the fashion died.

Well almost. It still turns up on particularly arty sites (bands and photographers apparently), and a ghost of that fashion came back to haunt me recently – a very small site, that provides mostly text-based information. Their home page was designed at great expense as an image, to be fair there were a few visual clues within the image, but it was only by mousing over that you could really “find” all the navigation. Once you clicked you were into a text-universe with no navigation – other than your browser’s back button.

I could have cried.

I tried to persuade the web-manager not to launch the site as is; to re-design the home page and sort out the navigation. I offered to help her figure it out.

She gave me two reasons for going ahead with the launch;

  1. They’d already spent a lot of money getting it designed and they didn’t have money to start over.
  2. Their manager liked it.

Both of those are incredibly bad reasons to proceed with a website launch when your precious new design is not user-friendly.

One of the key principles for designing usable websites is to tell people what they’re getting before they click. As Steve Krug points out in his utterly brilliant book “Don’t make me think”, we keep designing websites as if people read all the information, but people assess our website as if there were driving past a billboard at 100km/hr.

(I’m paraphrasing, I lent my copy of “Don’t make me think” to someone who obviously needs it – it’s never come back.)

Image Blank sign showing the old route of Hwy 55 into Downtown Mpls /Andrew Munsch/ CC BY-NC 2.0

Dutch Design; Cycling Style

Two of the things I like about living in Amsterdam; cycling everywhere, and Dutch pragmatism. Both are combined in latest bike design from VANMOOF.

VANMOOF design for urban cyclists, so their bikes are sturdy, but light and stylish. It’s dark here at 4pm in winter so the lights are built in and there’s a dynamo integrated into the bike. Bike theft is the most common crime here, so there’s a built in lock – one that comes out of the frame. I’ve noticed their distinctive design around town but didn’t know what they were until recently.

The design is so good it’s won awards.

The interesting thing about this company is they’re trying to design new products with genuine co-creation, take a look at their facebook page – they are always asking for feedback at every step of the process. They’re heading for 7,000 likes, and the community is submitting photos and stories of their VANMOOF bikes from all around the world.

Not only have I “liked” their facebook page, I want one of their bikes!

(Disclaimer – no of course they didn’t pay me to write this).

Postcript is…

A brief postscript to my “Design is…” post from a couple of weeks ago.

I used the design ideas from Presentation Zen to give a speech, a speech that needed to use visual aids at Toastmasters.

Toastmasters is a club that focuses on public speaking, and some members of my club are a little allergic to using powerpoint for this project. I was toying with the idea of using fabric samples to illustrate the colour wheel, but when someone in the club said that powerpoint was always awful I decided to rise to the challenge.

Screen Shot 2013-06-16 at 5.26.15 PMI choose “Fear” as my subject, and gave an 8 slide presentation (the speech is 6 minutes) using images to illustrate the various fears we have and our reactions to them. I got positive feedback on the night.

Even better at the following meeting two people came up and said they’d “copied” the concept of my presentation – that is they’d gone for image heavy presentations rather than text and bullet points. I recommended the book and website of Presentation Zen – I really can’t take any credit for the concept but I’m so happy that that others are picking up on it.

Image Claustrophobia I /Laura Lewis/ CC BY 2.0