By Haley Moore, July 10th, 2010

Today, I am going to share a parable of net-native design for those interested in learning from the mistakes of others.

A few weeks ago, I launched the site and resources for my distributed object project, Sew By Numbers.  Basically, I made a template that anyone could print out on a sheet of inkjet fabric, and if you followed the instructions on the sheet, you’d end up with a little doll.  Because the whole thing is printed on the fabric, the doll’s and features can be easily customized without changing the template.  It is basically papercraft, for fabric.

I had always planned to include a crowdsourcing element in Sew By Numbers, but since this was something I did in my spare time, I didn’t think I would get anyone interested customizing dolls without talking to them one on one.

And so, I published a blank template, with the half-hearted suggestion that people could design on them if they wanted to.  The blank template had some flaws.  The parts weren’t clearly labeled, and because constructing the doll involved flipping pieces over, it was almost assured that an arm or a foot would be backward if you didn’t know exactly where to place your graphics.  The blank was really designed for testing, and to make “sketch dolls” that artists could draw on after assembling them.

There was also an artist template, with all of these flaws fixed, but at the time I was simply passing it around by email to a small group of artists, and had held off making it publically available, so I could tweak it if I felt like it.

Turns out I was wrong.  About an hour after the project was mentioned to Aaron, an excellent character artist I’d never met,  he finished a really excellent doll design on the publically available template – the one with all the design flaws.  The result was usable, but needed hours of tweaking to add bleeds and fix one of those upside-down legs.

To fix it, I did three things – first, I made the proper template available at a short URL on our web site.  Second, I emailed it to Aaron directly.  Third, after talking to him a bit, I did all the necessary testing and tweaking for his design myself.  I didn’t want the miscommunication to discourage an interested and talented person from making more designs in the future.  The result looks great:

The lesson we can take from this snafu is – if you are going to get content from the crowd, make as many of your own resources as possible available to everyone.  Don’t limit the average participant to working with substandard tools. This is doubly important for early adopters, who are more skilled, focused, and passionate about contributing than later participants.

It should also be mentioned that Aaron was a friend of a friend, not a complete stranger.  It makes me think that crowdsourcing strategies might be useful even in smaller groups – basically, for anyone who you don’t speak to personally, your public presence is going to be your connection to them.

Luckily, this is not a post-mortem of my project.  SBN looks to be proceeding apace – even in the early stages, it’s gotten the nod from Thingiverse, and Andrea demoed it at foo camp.  I was even filmed putting together one of the alpha dolls for a documentary short about the Dallas Makerspace.  So far, the process of making internet dolls  has been  fun and rewarding – as long as it’s done with the right tools.

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Posted in crowdsourcing design experimental social media

Haley Moore is a newspaper reporter, artist, and playwright based in north Texas. She has worked on several indie, fan and commercial Alternate Reality Games.

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