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How to Optimize your Experience When Purchasing Services from a Crowdsourcing Platform

Crowdsourcing is the process of soliciting ideas, products or services from the 'crowd,' or those external to your organization and its normal suppliers.

Blair Corcoran de Castillo, Keyon Smith, and Stan Koutstaal are from the Administration for Children and Families' Office of Family Assistance. Their project, Building a Design-Minded and More Collaborative OFA, was selected as part of the second round of the HHS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Earlier this year, we set out to create a publication to share the lessons we learned from our HHS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIR) project. Unfortunately, we did not have graphic designers in-house and the options available through an existing contract were limited and too expensive. While we considered competing a contract for design services, we realized that it would take more time, effort and money than we had. So, much like our EIR project, we opted to test a new approach: utilizing a crowdsourcing platform for design services.

How Crowdsourcing Services Work

Crowdsourcing is the process of soliciting ideas, products or services from the 'crowd,' or those external to your organization and its normal suppliers. There are a number of crowdsourcing sites out there that can be found by just searching for 'crowdsourcing services' in your favorite search engine. Marketplaces for crowdsourcing services normally work through contests. While the exact steps may vary from one site to another, most crowdsourcing platforms work like this: a contest is formed when individuals or organizations interested in design services create a design contest on the crowdsourcing website.

For a contest to commence, you will complete a design brief in which you describe the services required. You will also select a design package, which is how much you pay and includes the amount awarded to the winning designer. Once the contest starts, dozens of designers submit design options over the course of the contest period. Our contest period lasted one week.

During the contest period, you are encouraged to provide feedback to designers and to rate their designs. As designers receive this feedback, they are able to submit different versions of their design for your consideration. Towards the end of the contest period, the platform requires you to select finalists. At this point, depending on the type and quality of the designs submitted, you have the option to extend the contest (in order to give additional feedback or reach new designers) or end the contest. Once you complete the contest, you will select a winner who will make some final tweaks to the design and then turn it over to you, along with the rights to use it as you please.

Can a Crowdsourcing Platform Work For You?

Our experience utilizing a crowdsourcing platform for design services delivered to us a unique and creative publication that was fast and affordable. We are proud to share "Creating Solutions Together: Design Thinking, The Office of Family Assistance & 3 Grantees" with others. Using a crowdsourcing platform for services might be of interest to you if you are:

1. Looking to access a broader range of service providers.

Normal contracting procedures encourage the selection of vendors from vetted lists, primarily including companies with prior experience in working with the government. Utilizing a crowdsourcing platform allowed our office to interact with individuals that have the technical expertise to provide quality design services, but may have never had the chance to work with the government.

2. Interested in only paying for exactly what you want.

Unlike a binding contract, if we did not like any of the designs that were submitted, we did not have to go with any of them. In fact, we had the opportunity to cancel the contest and not lose any money. Having the ability to provide timely feedback on the designs over the course of the contest was helpful in making sure that the designers knew what we wanted and that we got what we envisioned. And the best part was that we were not charged anything additional for these rounds of feedback. Engaging in this design contest ultimately reduced the risk of our office paying for services that did not meet our needs or standards of quality

3. Focused on receiving affordable, timely and quality services.

This approach reduced our team's level of effort to achieve a quality deliverable. Since the design contest was time bound, our office knew exactly how long we needed to be available to provide feedback to designers. In addition, the cost of receiving design services was much lower than what it could have been using traditional procurement practices as well. In fact, we are able to receive cover design, layout design and illustration services for a highly visual 30-page publication for less than $3,000. Using a traditional contracting route, it would have cost us upwards of $5,000.

Tips to Optimize the Experience

As easy as working with a crowdsourcing platform can be, it is much different than the government contracting process typically used. In addition, its services do not fully align with the normal work processes found in government institutions. For this reason, we found that there are a few ways to optimize your experience:

1. Become familiar with the platform.

Make sure to read up on the platform and how to use it prior to creating a contest. This will help you better prepare your contest for success. If you have questions that are not answered through the platform's website, do not hesitate to contact customer service. Crowdsourcing platforms are often run by small companies. So, not only can you get real people with intimate knowledge of the platform on the phone, but they can provide you with best practices for running a successful competition. If they don't volunteer them, just ask. We found that customer service representatives were happy to spend time with us.

2. Pick a point person.

If you are working on a team, be sure to select a project lead for the contest. This is helpful because some platforms only support one user account per contest. For platforms with this constraint, the point person will be responsible for creating a user profile, inputting the design brief and managing the interactions with designers on the platform. We found that having a lead placed the primary responsibility of platform-related activities on one person to manage. This helped us to avoid missing milestones in the contest or providing confusing feedback had we all had access to the platform.

3. Get organized.

Planning is an important part of working with crowdsourcing platforms because they are not confined by business hours or the work week. To be prepared for these challenges, the point person should lay out the platform's contest timeline, along with all milestones. In addition, the lead should propose a process for how the team's feedback will be incorporated at each important step of the contest. We found that having set meeting times to review designs and discuss feedback as a group ensured that all of our opinions were taken into consideration. It also enabled us to provide timely feedback to designers, allowing the feedback loops to work as the platform intended.

4. Delegate.

As you get organized, think about how members of the team and the platform itself can be helpful to you in reaching your goals. For example, there are hundreds of design contests being posted daily on these types of platforms. In order to have designers interested in ours, we learned that we needed to reach out to them individually. Assign members of your team to help create a list of designers that the point person can contact individually through the platform. (As it turns out, our winning designer was actually someone we contacted!) Platforms also know how best to reach service providers, and they might provide opportunities for your contest to be featured for a small fee. Consider employing the platform's services when it makes sense, since they have more experience running contests and have direct access to a huge number of service providers.

5. Remain flexible.

No matter how much planning you do, you never know how a contest will turn out. For this reason, you should expect the unexpected. For us, we had to be flexible with the timeline because very few designers originally submitted designs. Thus, we ended up extending our contest to give those designers that we reached out to time to submit designs. (As you might have imagined, that's when we learned the value of #1 and #3!). Ultimately, we received a design that we were excited about, but don't worry if you experience challenges or questions along the way.

Helpful Reminders from the Designer's Viewpoint

Our office developed a great relationship with our winning designer; however, there is still a fairly steep learning curve for any designer of a government-developed publication. To learn how we could improve experiences for future designers, we sought feedback from our winning designer. Here are a few of his helpful reminders for how government offices can create a shared language for and understanding of a design contest through a crowdsourcing site.

Cut out the acronyms.

Our designer shared that he "initially didn't understand all the acronyms and terminology used in the briefing and found it was initially difficult to work from." If our designer found it confusing, surely the general public would find our publication confusing when disseminated. What's really important is the content, so don't make it overly confusing by including the government alphabet soup.

Provide visuals when possible.

Design contests are time-limited, so designers do not have a lot of time to research your topic. Additionally, designers are generally not experts in government work either. Include visuals in your design brief that can quickly get the designer up to speed and provide context for the illustrations that you want to receive.

Have a 508/Accessibility expert on speed dial.

Our designer noted 508 compliance as the most difficult aspect of the project. In fact, he shared that his primary issue was that he uses a Mac and all the tutorial resources were optimized for a PC. He had to do a lot of experimenting to solve some of the formatting issues. To avoid a similar situation, get in touch with your agency's 508 team and engage them in your design contest from the beginning.

This project was also supported by the IDEA Lab's HHS Buyers Club which is focused on modernizing the acquisition lifecycle from beginning to end, and ensuring that all stakeholders adopt the newer, more effective model of collaborating with the common goal of ensuring that each IT service acquisition leads to success. From a leadership perspective, the HHS Buyers Club is a strategic consulting service that offers guidance and tools. We don't process the procurement, budget, IT, or other approvals, we simply bring everyone together in order to maximize success.

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