The Future of Crowdsourcing in Product Design

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There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the so-called democratization of design, a trend helped along by the Internet’s ability to harness the masses and “crowdsource” opinion with the hope of spawning innovation. By definition, crowdsourcing is the process of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to an undefined, large group of people or “crowd” through an open call.

The invitation, usually delivered via the Internet, may be soliciting the public to brainstorm a new technology or in some cases carry out a design task, also known as community-based design. The underlying goal is to spark innovation and creativity, something that can be lacking in traditional product development environments that must adhere to strict schedules and rigid budgets. The underlying principle of crowdsourcing is that more heads are better than one, especially when solving problems.

Crowdsourcing in the real world

While it might sound far-fetched, crowdsourcing is alive and well and surfacing at many leading companies. NASA recently announced an open innovation challenge to find a solution to maximize the amount of solar energy the International Space Station can harvest. This is just the latest in a string of crowdsourcing projects from NASA. The project, which is being coordinated by TopCoder’s open innovation community, offers a total price pool of $30,000.

Quirky, an online start-up and brainchild of 20-something Ben Kaufman, invites would-be inventors to submit product ideas—for $10—that are, in turn, vetted by the online community’s 352,000 users who vote for their favorites. Top-ranked ideas are reviewed by an in-house team of experts, who pick one or two products each week based on design potential, uniqueness, and market viability.

The ideas that move on go through a series of development phases—research, design and engineering, and branding—before being brought to market. Typical design cycle time is 120 to 180 days before the products get to store shelves. Over 299 Quirky-conceived products have been developed and can be found at Bed, Bath and Beyond, Target, and Barnes and Noble, among others. The inventors of the products generally earn about 35% of the product’s revenues.

Will crowdsourcing ever be mainstream?

Crowdsourcing can be a great source of inspiration for established companies who can use it to enable their users to collaborate on the design of new products while also testing the demand for those products at the same time. This concept, often referred to as customer crowdsourcing, has been common practice in the software industry for years, but relatively new in other industries.

Eric von Hippel, a Hardvard graduate, MIT big-wig, leading authority on user innovation and author of the book Democratizing Innovation, envisions a future in which most companies abandon traditional market research and product design and instead rely on communities of users to determine what products should be designed and sold. These so-called “innovation commons” would be made up of tinkerers, hackers, and other devout customers who freely share their ideas and opinions. According to von Hippel, the companies that win the innovation challenge will be the ones that listen.

There are many compelling reasons why companies should practice some form of crowdsourcing. For one, it forces companies to listen to all feedback, both good and bad. It also enables a community of users to feel a true sense of ownership in a company’s products. So what is the bottom line? The Internet can provide companies with a nearly limitless source of innovative ideas, but only through careful vetting by experts will crowdsourcing deliver on its potential to produce products that will not only inspire but also sell.

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