Amazon had a service called the Mechanical Turk that lets people complete small tasks for a fee – or, on the flipside, submit tasks to be completed. It was originally designed to make it easy for developers to let humans do tasks that computers are very bad at – such as distinguish text within photos. But since any type of task can be submitted and completed, it now functions as a general purpose outsourcing marketplace. With one twist – the pay for each task – called a HIT – is very, very low. As in, a few cents each in most cases.
If you are worried about slave labor in other countries, rest easy. Most of the people completing HITs are Americans. It’s an odd phenomenon. But it’s good for our purposes, as your responses will most likely be from a native English speaker.
Here’s how you can utilize the Turk to help your business.
Website feedback and virtual focus groups
You can assign each HIT to multiple people, so it is easy to create a virtual focus group. Just create a HIT and assign it to however many people you want to respond to it. The Turk will then list your task on the site and people can accept the HIT and work on it. Once you’ve received the number of responses you want, it will automatically be removed from the site. You can then approve or reject peoples responses. You may want to reject a response if they did not follow the instructions you include with your HIT.
Asking the right questions
Ask the responder to go to your website, or post in your sales offer. Then ask them to respond to questions such as “What questions pop up when you see my homepage?” or “What questions did you have that were not answered by the site (or sales letter)?” These kinds of questions are more likely to give you the kind of feedback you want than “Please provide feedback on what you think of the site”. You don’t want them to be in critique-website mode when they look at your site, because then the will be analyzing instead of reacting as a potential customer would. You want to know what they are experiencing internally when they navigate your site or read your pitch. Ask questions that elicit observations rather than interpretations. (Thanks to Mark Silver for this idea.)
I recommend assigning your HIT to a few people at first, to see if your questions give you the kind of feedback you want. When you’ve tested your questions and have good ones, create a new HIT and assign it to more people.
The more people you assign the HIT to, the more you’ll see the patterns in the feedback instead of just individual responses. If you ask 10 people you might get 10 different opinions. If you ask 100 people, you’ll start to see repeats and get a general sense of what works and what doesn’t about your site.
Research and writing content
Having a content site that you run ads on is a great way to create passive income. But who has time to write and research all that content? Here’s where the Turk can come in.
I run a site called Beadage that has a glossary of beading terms. To help expand it, first I created a HIT asking people to go to the site and then respond with 10 terms that were not already on the site but that were related to beading. So far so good.
Then, I created another HIT where I pasted in 5 of the terms I got in step 1 and asked them to define them. I assigned the HIT to 5 people so I could get 5 different definitions and pick the best one, or combine different ones. And I got great responses! Well worded, complete…almost too good.
Wait a minute…
I thought I better do a quick search on Google for some of these phrases just to see if anyone copied them. Yup – nearly all the definitions were copied verbatim from other sites, even when I specifically stated that copying was not acceptable.
So, original writing may not be the best use of the Turk, unless you want to create a followup task to each of your responses asking the responder to do a search on Google and tell you if the definition was copied or not. That is probably only feasible if it is automated.
However, the Turk still has potential for a way to get research done – even though the definitions I got back weren’t original, many came from different sources so it was easier for me to write the content into my own words, having the research in front of me.
Getting started and building HITs
The best way to understand how the Turk works is to create an account and do a few HITs as a user. You’ll only make about 45 cents but you’ll understand the system better.
When you are ready, click “Create Your Own HITs” to get started. It should be in the upper right hand area of your dashboard when you are logged in.
You may also want to check out HIT-builder which is a service that lets you create more complex HITs easily. They have a free version. Their interface is a bit clunky but you can save HIT templates which makes it much easier to make similar HITs. You can also make HITs that have multiple input areas instead of just one, which is a real benefit when you are asking more than one question.
I’m sure there are many ways to use the Mechanical Turk that I haven’t though of – experiment with it and see what you can come up with. I think any kind of user testing or research could be done using this method. The price is so low, it’s easy to run lots of experiments.
If you do experiment and come across a good technique or idea, I’d love to hear it! Please share by commenting below.
i wonder if i could use mechanical turk to get people to send house color combinations. 🙂
Hey, you never know. There’s the Sheep Project, all drawn by Turkers:
We received a very professional response back from one of our HITs and would like to assign the next HIT to this individual. Does anyone know how to do an “exclusive” with one person? How can we work with the same person on another HIT?
I’m pretty sure there is a way to do that – but it’s a question better asked of them. I think they have forums and/or a help/support section.