Subcontracting Microwork

Mainstream crowdwork platforms treat microtasks as indivisible units; however, in our upcoming CHI 2017 paper, we propose that there is value in re-examining this assumption. We argue that crowdwork platforms can improve their value proposition for all stakeholders by supporting subcontracting within microtasks.

We define three models for microtask subcontracting: real-time assistance, task management, and task improvement:

  • Real-time assistance encompasses a model of subcontracting in which the primary worker engages one or more secondary workers to provide real-time advice, assistance, or support during a task
  • Task management subcontracting applies to situations in which a primary worker takes on a meta-work role for a complex task, delegating components to secondary workers and taking responsibility for integrating and/or approving the products of the secondary workers’ labor.
  • Task improvement subcontracting entails allowing a primary worker to edit task structure, including clarifying instructions, fixing user interface components, changing the task workflow, and adding, removing, or merging sub-tasks.

Subcontracting of microwork fundamentally alters many of the assumptions currently underlying crowd work platforms, such as economic incentive models and the efficacy of some prevailing workflows. However, subcontracting also legitimizes and codifies some existing informal practices that currently take place off-platform. In our paper, we identify five key issues crucial to creating a successful subcontracting structure, and reflect on design alternatives for each: incentive models, reputation models, transparency, quality control, and ethical considerations.

To learn more about worker motivations for engaging with subcontracting workflows, we conducted some experimental HITs on mTurk. In one, workers had the choice of whether to complete a complex, three-part task, or to choose to subcontract portions to other (hypothetical) workers (and give up some of the associated pay); we then asked these workers why they did or did not choose to subcontract each task component. Money, skills, and interests all factored into these decisions in complex ways.

Implementing and exploring the parameter space of the subcontracting concepts we propose is a key area for future research. Building platforms that support subcontracting workflows in an intentional manner will enable the crowdwork research community to evaluate the efficacy of these choices and further refine this concept. We particularly stress the importance of the ethical considerations component, as our intent in introducing and formalizing concepts related to subcontracting microwork is to facilitate more inclusive, satisfying, efficient, and high-quality work, rather than to facilitate extreme task decomposition strategies that may result in deskilling or untenable wages.

You can download our CHI 2017 paper to read about subcontracting in more detail.  (Fun fact — the idea for this paper began at the CrowdCamp Workshop at HCOMP 2015 in San Diego; Hooray for CrowdCamp!)

Subcontracting Microwork. Proceedings of CHI 2017. Meredith Ringel Morris (Microsoft Research), Jeffrey P. Bigham (Carnegie Mellon University), Robin Brewer (Northwestern University), Jonathan Bragg (University of Washington), Anand Kulkarni (UC Berkeley), Jessie Li (Carnegie Mellon University), and Saiph Savage (West Virginia University).