The Faces in the Crowdsourcing

By Jeff Sauro, Principal Usability Engineer, Oracle


Imagine having access to a global workforce of hundreds of thousands of people who can perform tasks or provide feedback on a design quickly and almost immediately. Distributing simple tasks not easily done by computers to the masses is called "crowdsourcing" and until recently was an interesting concept, but due to practical constraints wasn't used often. Enter For five years, Amazon has hosted a service called Mechanical Turk, which provides an easy interface to the crowds. The service has almost half a million registered, global users performing a quarter of a million human intelligence tasks (HITs). HITs are submitted by individuals and companies in the U.S. and pay from $.01 for simple tasks (such as determining if a picture is offensive) to several dollars (for tasks like transcribing audio). What do we know about the people who toil away in this digital crowd? Can we rely on the work done in this anonymous marketplace?


A rendering of the actual Mechanical Turk (from Wikipedia)

Knowing who is behind Amazon's Mechanical Turk is fitting, considering the history of the actual Mechanical Turk. In the late 1800's, a mechanical chess-playing machine awed crowds as it beat master chess players in what was thought to be a mechanical miracle. It turned out that the creator, Wolfgang von Kempelen, had a small person (also a chess master) hiding inside the machine operating the arms to provide the illusion of automation.

The field of human computer interaction (HCI) is quite familiar with gathering user input and incorporating it into all stages of the design process. It makes sense then that Mechanical Turk was a popular discussion topic at the recent Computer Human Interaction usability conference sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery in Atlanta. It is already being used as a source for input on Web sites (for example, and behavioral research studies. Two papers shed some light on the faces in this crowd. One paper tells us about the shifting demographics from mostly stay-at-home moms to young men in India. The second paper discusses the reliability and quality of work from the workers.

Just who exactly would spend time doing tasks for pennies? In "Who are the crowdworkers?" University of California researchers Ross, Silberman, Zaldivar and Tomlinson conducted a survey of Mechanical Turk worker demographics and compared it to a similar survey done two years before. The initial survey reported workers consisting largely of young, well-educated women living in the U.S. with annual household incomes above $40,000. The more recent survey reveals a shift in demographics largely driven by an influx of workers from India. Indian workers went from 5% to over 30% of the crowd, and this block is largely male (two-thirds) with a higher average education than U.S. workers, and 64% report an annual income of less than $10,000 (keeping in mind $1 has a lot more purchasing power in India). This shifting demographic certainly has implications as language and culture can play critical roles in the outcome of HITs. Of course, the demographic data came from paying Turkers $.10 to fill out a survey, so there is some question about both a self-selection bias (characteristics which cause Turks to take this survey may be unrepresentative of the larger population), not to mention whether we can really trust the data we get from the crowd.


Crowds can perform tasks or provide feedback on a design quickly and almost immediately for usability testing. (Photo attributed to victoriapeckham, Flikr)

While having immediate access to a global workforce is nice, one major problem with Mechanical Turk is the incentive structure. Individuals and companies that deploy HITs want quality responses for a low price. Workers, on the other hand, want to complete the task and get paid as quickly as possible, so that they can get on to the next task. Since many HITs on Mechanical Turk are surveys, how valid and reliable are these results? How do we know whether workers are just rushing through the multiple-choice responses haphazardly answering? In "Are your participants gaming the system?" researchers at Carnegie Mellon (Downs, Holbrook, Sheng and Cranor) set up an experiment to find out what percentage of their workers were just in it for the money.

The authors set up a 30-minute HIT (one of the more lengthy ones for Mechanical Turk) and offered a very high $4 to those who qualified and $.20 to those who did not. As part of the HIT, workers were asked to read an email and respond to two questions that determined whether workers were likely rushing through the HIT and not answering conscientiously. One question was simple and took little effort, while the second question required a bit more work to find the answer. Workers were led to believe other factors than these two questions were the qualifying aspect of the HIT.

Of the 2000 participants, roughly 1200 (or 61%) answered both questions correctly. Eighty-eight percent answered the easy question correctly, and 64% answered the difficult question correctly. In other words, about 12% of the crowd were gaming the system, not paying enough attention to the question or making careless errors. Up to about 40% won't put in more than a modest effort to get paid for a HIT. Young men and those that considered themselves in the financial industry tended to be the most likely to try to game the system. There wasn't a breakdown by country, but given the demographic information from the first article, we could infer that many of these young men come from India, which makes language and other cultural differences a factor.

These articles raise questions about the role of crowdsourcing as a means for getting quick user input at low cost. While compensating users for their time is nothing new, the incentive structure and anonymity of Mechanical Turk raises some interesting questions. How complex of a task can we ask of the crowd, and how much should these workers be paid? Can we rely on the information we get from these professional users, and if so, how can we best incorporate it into designing more usable products?

Traditional usability testing will still play a central role in enterprise software. Crowdsourcing doesn't replace testing; instead, it makes certain parts of gathering user feedback easier. One can turn to the crowd for simple tasks that don't require specialized skills and get a lot of data fast. As more studies are conducted on Mechanical Turk, I suspect we will see crowdsourcing playing an increasing role in human computer interaction and enterprise computing.


  • Downs, J. S., Holbrook, M. B., Sheng, S., and Cranor, L. F. 2010. Are your participants gaming the system?: screening mechanical turk workers. In Proceedings of the 28th international Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Atlanta, Georgia, USA, April 10 - 15, 2010). CHI '10. ACM, New York, NY, 2399-2402.

  • Ross, J., Irani, L., Silberman, M. S., Zaldivar, A., and Tomlinson, B. 2010. Who are the crowdworkers?: shifting demographics in mechanical turk. In Proceedings of the 28th of the international Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Atlanta, Georgia, USA, April 10 - 15, 2010). CHI EA '10. ACM, New York, NY, 2863-2872.

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