Phillip Smith

Is "crowdsourcing" the new "design by committee"?

Cross-posted from the New Internationalist Tech blog

While asking for input on the New Internationalist redesign process the other day, one of my friends replied (in jest) "Is 'crowdsourcing' the new 'design by committee'?"

It got me thinking about why I'm excited by open and transparent design processes, and how concepts like crowdsourcing are exactly the opposite of design by committee. (Well, sometimes.)

For me, the excitement stems from a passion for learning. I like to "see inside the tent" and to learn about how others approach the same challenges I face in my work, for example: How to build successful online advocacy campaigns, How to produce compelling Web properties, and How to develop impact-filled, sustainable, Web strategies.

Open design processes?

As a quick example, here are some recent (or ongoing) redesign processes that I've enjoyed watching and learning from:

Each one of these gives an unprecedented view into the minds of the designers, the design challenges, and the users that sit squarely on the other side of the equation.

Users have an opinion? So what?

Attending events like Designs on Democracy and BarCamp in Toronto helped open my mind to what's possible when you hand the agenda over to the participants. And helping to produce events like Penguin Day, Web of Change, and CopyCamp enabled me to see the impact of "Open Space Technology" on the ground (along with a new appreciation for just how much work open-space-style events really are).

But, through all of that, I kept faith that the "users" and "participants" have at least half of the answer. And, for me, that's the key difference between crowdsourcing ideas that impact a community -- like users, supporters, readers, or participants -- and the concept of designing by committee. In my experience: design by committee adds all of the overhead of "open" without achieving any of its efficiencies.

Back to crowdsourcing vs. design by committee

Let's leave aside for a moment the likelihood that the committee, by definition, is probably made up entirely of "people on the inside" and not users. A committee fails by only empowering a small, pre-selected, group. So there's problem No. 1: In a small group, big opinions are unnecessarily amplified.

On the flip side, an open process invites a large group of predominantly "not known" (to the organization) people to contribute ideas, input, and feedback. So here's major benefit No. 1: By nature of a having lots of voices, the volume gets turned down on the edge-case opinions.

Though it's still relatively early in the New Internationalist open redesign process, there are definitely some other identifiable benefits (and, to be honest, challenges). The big pluses in my mind are:

  • Incredible insights, from incredibly smart people (and, somehow, for free!)
  • Preliminary user-testing before the "real" user-testing
  • Lots of points of view that usually wouldn't be heard, which can lead to real innovation

On the challenges side:

  • It's entirely possible to receive lots of feedback that's not very helpful at all
  • Too much feedback can be challenging to distill into actionable next steps
  • And the inevitable fear that meeting the needs of "regular people" (aka non-creatives) leads to the lowest common denominator design

By far the best quote that summarizes this last point was from one of New Internationalist's own print designers, who commented:

"It's good that you invite feedback but I would urge you to follow your instincts on this one. Experience suggests that when you try to accommodate all opinions you can end up losing what was strong and distinctive about your ideas. You're the designer!"

I guess, for me, that begs the question: Does all design need to seek distinction?

A word on innovation and breaking new creative ground

When I was younger and less experienced, I was a sucker for great visual design (I lie, I still am). Today, I'm firmly of the opinion that graphic design on the Web should try to help users achieve their goals and that creative excellence shouldn't come at the expense of the users' experience.

In most cases, that means following Web conventions where possible, so that users can easily find what they're looking for. The only other dynamic I can really appreciate is the need to guide users toward the tasks that support the Web site, or organization that it represents.

That said, I'm thankful that there are some people out there that don't agree and continuously try to break new ground, and -- in the process -- bring new conventions into the fold. I'm just happy they don't do it on my watch, and I feel like those innovators should be forced to sit through a usability lab with the people who will be using their innovations. (Without fail, it's a painful and humbling experience, I assure you.)

Open vs. closed: who's the winner?

What process works best is for you to decide. Thanks to the New Internationalists open redesign process, you can take ideas away from Andy Clarke and from all of the other smart people who are contributing their insights.

Are there other great examples of "open design" processes that are happening out there on the InterWeb? If you know of one, please pop it into the comments.

P.S. While writing this, I ran across this great "view into a print redesign project" YouTube piece by Toronto creative Alan Smith. There's something I love about being able to get inside a creative mind, it's addictive. More like this!

Cross-posted from the New Internationalist Tech blog


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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