The outcome of any open innovation project rests on both the quality and quantity of participants you can encourage to engage with the project.  Earlier this autumn I outlined some of the main motivating factors behind participation in open innovation:

  • For money
  • For a social good
  • For fame
  • For the experience

Whilst those remain the main factors I believe, an interesting new paper from the Georgia Institute of Technology has explored the matter in more depth.

The focus of their experiment was user behaviour data extracted from the Zooniverse website.  If you haven’t heard of Zooniverse before, the site evolved out of the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project, and now conducts a range of science based projects, with 19 currently underway.

The binding feature of all of the projects is that citizen volunteers are asked to help scientists wade through the kind of data that computers have traditionally struggled with.  This relative uniformity gave the researchers a good base to work from.

Analysing seven projects from Zooniverse, the study collected data from over 100,000 users.  With no financial remuneration given to users, they hoped to discover some of the more intrinsic factors involved in participation.

They found, perhaps not surprisingly, that intrinsic factors included “enjoyment of solving challenging problems, from curiosity about the object or task, or from anticipated feelings of competence once a problem has been solved.”

This basic enjoyment factor was based on things such as their interest in specific objects, knowledge domains or activities.  With this basic level of understanding, they could then explore the participation levels on the site in more detail.  Their hypothesis consisted of six specific questions.

  1. What share of participants contributes to just a single project vs. to multiple projects?
  2. What share of individuals who receive information about a project starts to participate? What share of contributors returns to a project a second time?
  3. To what extent does participation in new projects reduce effort in old projects vs. increase overall effort devoted to crowd science projects?
  4. How fast does the average person’s participation in a project decline over time?
  5. What share of individuals shows stable or even increasing activity in a project over time?
  6. How concentrated are contributions among top contributors? To what extent does a high number of total contributions to a project reflect intensive activity at a given point in time vs. activity that is sustained over a longer period of time?

They found that the vast majority of users only participate in a single project, with half of those that do participate drifting away after 15 days.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the user graph exhibited a traditional long tail, with the top users contributing around 100 times more than the average user.

So what lessons can be taken away from the research?

  1. Participation is often motivated by a very specific interest in a particular project or challenge, therefore understanding the interests of users is very beneficial
  2. It’s a significant challenge to maintain interest over a long period of time, with gamification an untapped resource in maintaining interest
  3. Understanding who your core users are is essential

It’s certainly an interesting paper and a valuable addition to the knowledge base on open innovation.