The crowd at CAM

Effective Crowdsourcing – Case Studies

Recently, I had two great experiences participating in crowdsourcing exercises at local events. Both events were successful in getting a diverse population of unsuspecting individuals to generate tangible results within an hour. Amazing! I’ve had varying degrees of success trying to get non-designers involved in group design activities in the past. I want to take a close look at these exercises and how they were facilitated to understand why they worked. What made these events so successful and how can I apply that in the future?

The crowd at CAM
The crowd at work.

The first event was at the Innovation in MiKE Council Meeting. This was a meeting of individuals all interested in developing the city of Milwaukee as a design, technology and innovation cluster. Consistent with this mission, Katherine von Jan spoke about RadMatter, a new platform for campus recruiting. RadMatter applies gamification principles to tackle the challenges of talent development and recruiting. Their goal for the event was to generate quality content for their beta launch and forge strategic relationships.

Tip: Select an audience that is invested in the topic or final outcome.

The lively presentation did a good job of grabbing the audience attention. Not only was it a tool that would address an issue in which the the group has a vested interest, there was a solid case made with research and data to explain why it could succeed. Companies represented by the attendees could also get fully engaged in the beta if and reap the benefits. By the end of the presentation, people were nodding their heads and smiling about this new, innovative idea.

Tip: Get the audience excited about your goals and the big picture.

After briefing the audience on the driving principles of the design, Katherine informed the crowd that they would be participating in developing some content. And there would not be much time to do it.  In fact, the crowd had 20 minutes to self organize, brainstorm and distill a single idea into something actionable.

Having an incredibly small amount of time to work made people quickly assign themselves into groups and hit the ground running. Since there was no time to entertain social anxieties or analyze what we were about to do, people focused on doing.

Tip: Tightly time box the exercise.

I’m always fascinated by human behavior in groups. Anytime you get people together who need to make decisions, there are consistent roles that emerge. There is always someone who steps in and takes a leadership role driving the group forward. Someone facilitates, keeping the group on track, watching the time and making sure the rules are followed. And there are others who prefer to be scribes and the hands on people molding the group’s idea into the tangible. In my group, we had been given a theme. We explored several options before selecting the idea to pursue based on the time remaining.

Each of us had received a hand out with the instructions, guidelines and the principles that the result should embody. We all referenced these documents repeatedly. It was a lot of information, but it was laid out in a way that made each topic easy to reference. When questions arose, we were able to find the answer without seeking out the organizers or other groups. This event had over 60 attendees. It would have been disastrous if the organizers would have needed to provide individual guidance to each team.

Tip: Write down and distribute the instructions and supporting information so that the participants can reference it when needed.

Each group was able to submit their work using the actual beta software. This was great because there was an invitation for continued engagement via the software. The interaction gave us a familiarity and head start working with it. In addition to the ongoing involvement, participants would have a way to keep up on the progress of the project through the software.

Tip: Provide ways to continue the participation and make the path to engagement clear.


Tip: Let people see the value that came out of their contribution.

Part of the continued engagement allowed participants to compete for $50 gift certificates to Kohls for each member of the winning team, and tickets to a Present Music Concert in Milwaukee. Who doesn’t enjoy a little friendly competition?

Tip: Reward participants for their time.

The other event was the Leap Day Event for the Creative Alliance of Milwaukee. This organization is in it’s beginning stages of development. The individuals gathered ranged from working artists to corporate recruiters all interested in developing the creative industries in the Milwaukee area. The goal of the event was to have attendees explore the vision and strategic plan of the organization. Facilitating the event, Bob Schwartz and were members of the GE Global Design team.

After a presentation of the vision and strategic plan, the team introduced themselves with great enthusiasm and the project in which we were invited to participate. Everyone had been given a number upon arrival that indicated the group with which they would work. Similar to the RadMatter exercise, each team was given a set of written instructions that clearly detailed the exercise instructions and goal.

The teams were given 20 minutes to complete their project using community stores of supplies. Magazines, newspapers, markers, glue, glitter…all fun things that most of us used as kids. This really helped set the mood and keep participants from worrying about achieving perfection. They even went so far as to disallow scissors. We were exploring abstract ideas such as vision and strategy through visual collage.

Tip: Use materials that focus participants on the ideas not perfect execution.

It was a fun exercise and I was surprised how well our little team of 3 worked together. We brainstormed, revised, distilled ideas, and compromised. We completed our project at the buzzer and felt good. All of the teams then placed their masterpiece in the gallery area and everyone was given time to mill about, network, and look at what the other teams created.

Tip: Make it fun

To wrap up, each team was asked to have a representative present their project to the entire group and explain what they did. It was fabulous to see the excitement and energy created by going through the collaborative effort in such a limited time. The organization was able to capture a wealth of information about the groups attitudes and ideas from this exercise while at the same time energizing those who will become the drivers of the organization. The GE team then created a mural showing the long term vision of the organization. It was a nice, although obvious, metaphor conveying that everyone there could contribute to making the vision a reality.

Tip: Give everyone an opportunity to see what the other teams created.

The vision of Milwaukee as a hub of creative commerce fulfilled

What did these two events have in common that made them successful?

  • Each event selected an audience that had common goals.
  • They began by reviewing those goals and getting people energized around the common mission.
  • The audience was quickly transitioned into the exercise. No time to belabor they whys and wherefores of what was about to be done. Just get to it.
  • Organizing into teams was quick and easy.
  • The events were so tightly time boxed that the teams weren’t sure they could complete what they needed to do in that time. This got people moving and removed any anxiety about perfection.
  • The directions and relevant information was printed out and the participants could refer to it again and again during the mad dash.
  • There was a final product completed at the end.
  • Everyone had great opportunity to meet others during the event.
  • People understood how their work would contribute to the overall vision
  • Invitation for engagement beyond the exercise.

The other factor which had a big impact on their success, was the confidence and enthusiasm of the facilitators. They were truly excited about what everyone was about to do. That energy was contagious. They also gave the teams room to figure things out and didn’t jump in when we had that initial “What are we doing now?” moment. The direction was clearly given, enthusiastically and they trusted the participants to do the work. Perhaps those were the most important factors to successful crowd sourcing.