Quirky – Product Design by the Masses

The evaluation process. Photo provided by Quirky.

The annual awards ceremony of the prestigious red dot design award will take place at the Aalto Theater in Essen on 2nd July 2012. The award-winning designs will then be shown in a yearlong exhibition in the red dot design museum in the former coal mine Zeche Zollverein. This year’s award winners include Jake Zien’s articulated surge protector Pivot Power and Angelo Caccione’s multifunctional wine opener Verseur, both by the company Quirky. Like all the other award-winners these products are distinguished by the superlative quality of their design – after all, 1,058 of the 4,515 entries in the product design category were awarded the coveted hallmark of excellence. However, what makes the two aforementioned brands stand out from the throng of winners is not the high quality of the end product, but the process by which they came about. Quirky is not just the name of a brand for household products and multimedia accessories, nor is it just a design office. What makes Quirky unique is the utilisation of “hive intelligence” in the product design. Quirky is a crowdsourcing platform that brings two products to the marketplace every week, developed by a steadily growing online community with currently 190,000 members.

Verseur

The economic Wunderkind
Founded in 2009 by Ben Kaufman, Quirky is already the third company of the now 25-year-old whizz-kid. Still in his school years, economic Wunderkind Kaufman convinced his parents to re-mortgage the family home in order to finance the foundation of Mophie, a company specialising in accessories for iPhones and iPods. Here Kaufman began with great success to involve users in the generation of new product ideas, which contributed to the rapid growth of the company. In 2007 he sold the company, by now a multi-million dollar concern, in order to fully dedicate himself to the principle of collective product design. He then founded Kluster, a company for collaboration software, followed by Quirky, his greatest success so far. Numerous videos of Kaufmann are available online where he advertises his firm and its products in euphoric and blatant style. In these he quite often appears to have sprung up from a teleshopping channel and indeed, he would have little difficulty convincing even a hardcore carnivore of the advantages of a new vegetable chopping tool in next to no time. Indeed, Quirky did for a time have its own television show, where Kaufman was able to give full rein to his relentless marketing talent. Spin is, after all, one of the tools of the trade. But there is much more to it than that.

Set theory
In 2006 the editor of the magazine Wired, Jeff Howe, coined the term “crowdsourcing”, which has by now asserted itself universally as a description for platforms such as Quirky. In the influential article The Rise of Crowdsourcing and the subsequent book 1 Howe, based on examples such as iStockphoto (in contrast to Getty Images) and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, developed the hypothesis that the future of cheap work no longer lay in outsourcing to India, but in making use of the abundant cerebral capacities of the online “crowd”. Howe speaks of this abundance in terms of “spare cycles” while the Internet guru Clay Shirky calls the phenomenon “cognitive surplus” 2. Seen from this perspective, a potential cerebral capacity, which had previously gone to waste in front of the television, is now recognised as a resource. Multiple tasks that were once dealt with by a clearly defined group of employees can now, thanks to technological progress, be outsourced by opening up to the “online community”: the Wikipedia principle, applied to everything, and to the creative sector in particular.

How well this can in fact work is anything but self-evident, and this in two respects: on the one hand it seemed surprising that so many people would make their ways of thinking, their creativity and their technical skills available quasi for free, and on the other, the idea that something of quality could arise in this way contradicted the prevailing cliché of the mindless consumer masses. After all, this had always been the province of well-paid experts, of sought-out professionals, not arbitrary amateurs. In 2004 in The Wisdom of Crowds 3 journalist James Surowiecki had already attempted to clear up these mistaken assumptions. Based on a number of examples from the world of science he had shown that under certain conditions and for particular tasks the crowd always comes up with better solutions than individual experts. These conditions include a group, which is as large and heterogeneous as possible, actors with utmost independence and a decentralised organisation structure. If these factors are not given, it can quickly result in so-called “group thinking”, a dynamic whereby the end result falls far below the potential of each individual because of the knock-on effect of erroneous decisions. This “herd instinct” is also what frequently leads to speculative bubbles, e.g., “tulip mania” or the “dot-com bubble”. But the “crowd” is in itself neither naive nor wise; everything depends on the organisation of processes. Surowiecki’s book marks an important turning point in the perception of the “crowd” – from the angry mob on the street 4 or the passive mass of hermits  5 glued to the television up to the industrious free online workforce 6 – and indirectly serves as a detailed instruction manual for effective crowdsourcing.

What Tom Sawyer and a beekeeper have in common
The neatest literary example of the principle of crowdsourcing comes from Mark Twain. His hero, Tom Sawyer, accomplished the famous feat of making the task entrusted to him – he was supposed to whitewash a fence – so attractive and exclusive that his friends competed, even paid him, for the honour of completing his work for him. It is therefore no surprise that the crowdsourcing phenomenon is often associated with exploitation, even when all the participants know what they are letting themselves in for. This is especially evident in the field of graphic design, for instance on platforms such as crowdspring, 99designs or designenlassen. These websites enable commercial clients to receive hundreds of logo designs from a crowd of designers eager to work for minimal sums of around 200 euros – including a complete abdication of usage rights. Ultimately only one design at most is paid for – 99 designs are quasi free. Like beekeepers, the operators of these platforms supply only the infrastructure, the hive, into which the crowd of busy designers feeds its accumulated creative output voluntarily, and always in the hope of making a profit. From the customer’s point of view therefore, the value of a logo is around 50 cents – the chance of actually also being paid for a design is a hundred to one. The added value for the participating designers is therefore limited: they are mostly just supplied to penny-pinchers who then choose at random from the mass of designs.

However, Quirky’s programme differs significantly from these examples of crowdsourcing in graphic design, in that the platform in fact actively helps the participating designers and inventors to overcome numerous hurdles that the individual would find difficult to master. And for every productive contribution to a successful product there is a chance of real, ongoing profit sharing.

Verseur_4

Gyro Gearloose and his 648 helpers
The fact that Quirky offers its users genuine added value quickly becomes apparent when one speaks to Awesemo, the inventor of the Verseur wine opener and proud red dot award winner. Angelo Caccione, as he is known in civilian life, is 33 years old and works mainly in London’s catering industry. Although he started out as a dishwasher, Caccione always wanted to be an inventor just like his grandfather in Italy, who was invariably to be found in his garage working on new ideas.

Even as a child, I was always taking things apart and studying them. I filed my first patent – for a special baby bottle – at the age of 21, but at the time I had no idea how to deal with manufacturers, dealers and sales and distribution. In the end, another companies brought my idea on to the market.

Thanks to Quirky, the path from the first idea to seeing the product on the shelf has become much shorter. Caccione has already filed 74 ideas since he discovered the platform in autumn 2010 and he has accompanied and influenced many more designs on their way to product maturity. Today, his portrait photo graces the packaging of Verseur, but he is not the only one to have worked on the development of the corkscrew. The package insert for the product lists the names of a total of 648 collaborators from the Quirky community. The share of the so-called influencers is shown in percentages, even down to the thousandth part. Caccione’s part is estimated at 35.20 per cent, followed by Gary Vaynerchuck (20 per cent), who came up with the original design brief, and David Yakos (3.79 per cent), who contributed to the name of the product. Added to that is the Quirky design team, the members of which are however not listed by name on the packaging.

It remains to be seen who will accept the coveted prize in Essen, but Caccione suspects that it will be Ben Kaufman himself. This would be fine, he explains, because the Quirky design team did in fact do most of the work and contributed substantially to the development of the original design 7. Willingness to compromise is therefore essential, and Caccione is convinced that he would have not been able to develop his product idea to market maturity on his own because he lacked the contacts, the necessary manufacturing expertise and above all the start-up capital. At Quirky, by contrast, there is a token charge of just ten dollars to submit an idea.

The process
Every week Quirky receives hundreds of ideas, which are then discussed and assessed by the community. The platform operators then compile the most popular of these into a shortlist of approximately a dozen proposals, which are then considered more closely. Recently, this evaluation phase has taken place publicly in the form of a weekly live stream – providing yet more proof of Quirky’s unusual openness. What is also impressive is the respect and trust that this gathering of some 60 noticeably youthful Quirky employees have in their dealings with one another – a community within the community.

The evaluation process. Photo provided by Quirky.

Ben Kaufman himself hosts the discussions about the new ideas from a podium and analyses their usefulness and feasibility, the potential target groups and eventual similarities to other products on the market in an open dialogue with the team. The key question that always comes up is this: does this new idea provide a solution for a real problem? Nothing unnecessary should be added to the already existing flood of plastic rubbish. The process seems hard, but fair, and two products survive the weekly tribunal. During this step the rights are transferred to Quirky. It is now that the real work begins for the company’s internal team of experts. Prototypes are made and research is intensified, rights and patents are clarified, production costs are evaluated and manufacturers sought. The online community then has another opportunity to express itself. The opinion of the crowd is sought in relation to the product’s colour, name and packaging, its advertising tagline and retail price. In the final phase, Quirky then protects itself against non-sellers with a subscription model. The product only goes into production and distribution when enough potential customers have been found.
Quantity is key
At Quirky, the final step in the process of creating a product shares great similarities with kickstarter.com, that another major web platform that changes the product design processes with the help of the crowd. Here, the demand on the hive not only extends to time and creativity, but cash too. People who not only have an idea, but can also convincingly show that they have the necessary skills to realise their idea, can generate the crowd for the requisite start-up capital through Kickstarter. The so-called backers that are willing to financially support the idea presented by kickstarter.com secure their payment against a multilayered system of material and conceptual compensatory measures. The money however first flows when a predefined critical mass of start-up capital is reached. Only then can production begin. This pre-financing through customers or fans is, in and of itself, not a new invention. William Hogarth (1697–1764) was an early pioneer of the crowdfunding model, having developed a subscription scheme to finance his story cycle Marriage-à-la-Mode. He sold his supporters warrants in the form of caricatures, so to speak as pledges for the works still to be completed. The subscription or advance payment also came into use in the German book trade from the 18th century, in order to kick-start publications. And even Mozart organised commercial concerts on a subscription basis.

At the moment, Kickstarter is consistently breaking its own records. In February 2012, for instance, product designer Casey Hopkins was able to collect almost one and a half million dollars in order to produce his Elevation Dock, a slick aluminium iPhone charging dock. Unlike Quirky member Caccione, at Kickstarter Hopkins holds all the rights to his product. Accordingly, the potential gains are higher – as are the risks and amount of work. For experienced designers with business acumen, Kickstarter is therefore the better alternative. For part-time inventors and newcomers from other disciplines however, Quirky’s cost-benefit ratio is best. In addition to its own online shop, Quirky has numerous partnerships with large retail chains, above all in the USA. When Quirky sells a product online, 30 per cent of the income flows back to the community where it is divided between the inventors and helpers. If the sale is made through a retailer, the percentage is reduced to ten, but the quantities are then much larger.

Quirky-Influencers

Jake Zien, the other red dot award winner from Quirky, has already made over 200,000 dollars with his Pivot Power Surge Protector. Angelo Caccione is some way behind: so far, he has earned some 6,000 dollars through his contributions on the platform. He is nevertheless optimistic: soon, his Verseur will be on the shelves in Target, the second-largest retailer in the USA after Walmart, with over 1,000 branches. For each item sold Caccione receives just 30 cents, about one per cent of the retail price, but it is the quantity that makes the difference. He aims to keep catering on the back burner for the time being so that he can in future dedicate himself fully to his inventions. Verseur is meant to be the first large step towards this. Invention is to be more than just a hobby for him, more than it was for his grandfather, and thanks to Quirky Caccione feels that he is on the right path. “It is only because of Quirky that I have produced so many ideas”, explains Caccione.

Every single positive comment from the community means a lot to me. What I like so much about Quirky is the process, which pushes me on to become better and better.

Although Caccione thinks highly of Quirky, he is nonetheless critical. In his opinion, the platform’s biggest problem is the risk of the theft of ideas. He is therefore very cautious with his most valuable ideas and in the initial stages uses other websites such as EdisonNation 8, which are also open to everyone’s inventions, but which lack the open development process and the participation of the community. Here, all processes transpire behind closed doors and are therefore safer. Caccione states that on a number of occasions he has seen how ideas from the Quirky community were submitted on Kickstarter by a third party. Whether one should bring the crowd on board is therefore something that must be thoroughly considered – along with what one wants from the crowd: financing alone or also the actual further development of the product. Edison Nation is a black box for the inventor, whereas with Quirky one gets comprehensive and expert feedback, at least from the Quirky design team and the community, even when an idea is not developed. A file on the feasibility and market chances of a product that can also be very useful for further development beyond the platform. Even the perhaps initially painful experience that the perceived ingenious invention is received with little enthusiasm can be valuable, in that it protects the inventor from unrealistic failed investments.

Platforms such as Quirky and Kickstarter make it easier than ever for product designers with good ideas to bring their products into the marketplace, and the crowd plays a very important role in this. While crowdfunding is meanwhile a highly effective way of overcoming the obstacle of start-up capital, Quirky not only assumes its members’ rights, but also takes on all the other steps on the difficult path to the end product. In the process, the company is highly skilled at minimising the risk of failed investments by involving the crowd at all the decision-making levels, while keeping the reins firmly in hand at all times. Unlike crowdsourcing in graphic design, all the participants here gain something from their collaboration. What Quirky’s impact is on the design world in general is a matter of speculation. It is no coincidence that Quirky is currently focusing on simple domestic appliances without integrated circuits. With a growing level of complexity in the products, the development cycles will probably become too long and the community management process too cumbersome. However, the production principle could catch on. Even if the products that are currently produced in this way are not necessarily revolutionary, the process is that without a doubt.

All photos provided by Quirky.
Many thanks to Angelo for his time and his openness.

The article was originally written in German for bauhaus issue 3 Things in May 2012 under the title:
Hive – From production for the masses to design by the masses

Notes:

  1. Jeff Howe: Crowdsourcing. How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. Random House 2008.
  2. Clay Shirky: Cognitive Surplus. Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin Press 2010.
  3. James Surowiecki: The Wisdom of Crowds. Why the Many are Smarter Than the Few. Abacus 2004.
  4. Charles Mackay: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Wordsworth Editions 1841 – also compare Gustave Le Bon: The Crowd. A Study of the Popular Mind. 1895.
  5. Günther Anders: The Outdatedness of Human Beings 1. On the Soul in the Era of the Second Industrial Revolution. Munich 1956.
  6. Don Tapscott, Anthony D. Williams: Wikinomics. How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Portfolio 2006.
  7. From Corky to Verseur: Quirky gives insight into the development process of its products – for example here and here.
  8. Additional websites for inventors: Genius Crowds, Everyday Edison , Ahhha.

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