Smartsheet: the deadliest app in town?

January 20th, 2011 by

microtask_smartsheet_crowdThe “killer app” is the dream of every rookie software designer. A program that’s so brilliant, so niche-bustingly successful, it spawns a whole new industry.

When people talk about the history of personal computing the spotlight tends to focus on advances in hardware. But while shiny new technology is always impressive, it’s software that’s made PCs popular, and made money. In the 1980s, the business world only became interested in the cutting edge Apple II once killer app VisiCalc – the first graphical spreadsheet – came along. The internet was a tiny network, populated by a handful of nerdy academics, until web browsers, email and search engines got the world seriously online.

So, the million (or more likely several billion) dollar question is: what will be the killer app for crowd labor? The piece of software that makes tapping into the crowd as common as firing up Firefox, or yelling at MS Word Help?

Smarter fitter app-ier
One serious contender is Smartsheet, a spreadsheet-like tool that’s big on online collaboration. In 2009 Smartsheet introduced “Smartsourcing”, a feature that allows users to design and post crowd labor tasks via Mechanical Turk. Smartsheet’s x-factor is the way crowdsourcing is totally integrated into its interface. Users can just click on the Smartsourcing tab, and have a task go live in minutes. The Smartsourcing system lets you specify instructions, timings, payment rates and privacy settings. The app also recently teamed up with Google docs, giving it access to a massive new potential market.

The web is buzzing with (frankly sickening numbers of) satisfied customers. It seems folks just can’t get enough of an elegantly engineered crowdsourcing solution. And, to prove there is sometimes truth behind the hype, a recent paper by Mechanical Turk guru Panos Ipeirotis concluded that around 10% of all traffic on Mechanical Turk is now due to Smartsheet and CrowdFlower alone. Not bad in under two years.

Educating Turkers
With bags of ambition, a stylish interface and a heap of clever features, Smartsheet is the kind of app it’s hard not to like. But does that make it a killer? The answer is, like great comedy or perfectly cooked eggs, it’s all about the timing. Even if Smartsheet was the best piece of software ever to roll onto the web, if people aren’t ready, it’ll be about as deadly as a tame rabbit.

For Smartsheet I’d say the biggest hurdle is what you might call “task education”. It’s hard for us grizzled, crowdsourcing vets to imagine, but for most business execs, Smartsourcing will be the first time they’ve run into the concept of online crowd labor. Designing a good, easy to follow task might not be rocket science, but it definitely takes a bit of skill and practice. Badly worded tasks lead to bad results: bad results make new users less inclined to risk money by trying again.

To be fair, Smartsheet clearly realizes there’s a potential issue. The company provides a wealth of videos, tutorials and help pages to get newbie requestors beyond the “what the hell is this crowd doing in my computer” stage. Just as important, Smartsheet is also active on worker forums like TurkerNation: the company is reportedly very swift to respond to complaints about lack of payment etc. Keeping the workers happy makes solid business sense: if Smartsheet has a good rep on Mechanical Turk, tasks get done better and faster.

No doubt Smartsheet is a great app. If it doesn’t turn out to be a total game changer, it’s definitely going to help get more people using crowd labor to do more stuff. Perhaps our field won’t have a single killer at all, but a deadly swarm of apps, connecting the working crowd to the rest of the world.