Design principle: Collective intelligence / by Gavin Lau

We all know that 2 heads are better than one, when facing a challenge. However, many heads are better than two and frequently more accurate, too.

This article aims to inspire people involved in the creation of products (Designers) to think about how important is to collaborate with diverse group of people when facing challenges.

Let’s look at how the collective intelligence can influence our design and in what ways we can make usage of this sociological phenomenon.

Collective intelligence in short

Collective intelligence (CI) is shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals and appears in consensus decision making.

It is interesting that our individual intelligence can be boosted significantly just by the simple act of collaboration with other individuals. It is not even needed to be a direct collaboration, where the people know each other.

Many pixels can show a better and more detailed picture than one pixel can.

Collective intelligence works in a similar way.

The more diverse is the group of people, the higher the collective intelligence grows. It is no surprise that international teams can achieve much more than only one nationality teams.

Having a mix of different opinions and beliefs focused on solving a challenge gives rise to the collective intelligence. It allows approaching the problem solution in multiple different ways until the best one emerges.

However, it is important to note that the presence of an expert, that could potentially influence the opinions of the rest of the group, automatically degrades the collective intelligence.

Several conditions are usually needed to ensure that collective intelligence will happen. Diversity, independence, and decentralization. In addition, disagreement and contest among the contributors are also beneficial for increasing the collective intelligence.

The amount of communication should be moderate, because too much of it can reduce the CI, due to the predominance of influencing each others opinions.

How to use collective intelligence in Design

We can split the collective intelligence for our design work to several contexts. Team work, Research and Products.

Team work

As designers it is essential in my opinion to harness the collective intelligence as much as possible. Facilitating workshops with different stakeholders can bring great benefits to the final product.

So is collective intelligence all we need to make great design?

Sadly it’s not that simple! In workshops and group work, it is important to have also a leader, a decision maker, who is authorized to make the final call.

Without a Decision maker, all that collective intelligence can end up into endless cycle of communication and collaboration without any tangible result.

Allow the collective intelligence to grow until satisfactory ideas and solutions arise, and then make a decision.


Collective intelligence is essential part of any quantitative research. Using tools that collect data from multiple people is a great way to make use of the CI. Survey tools like Typeform, Qualaroo, HotJar and similar can be used for asking people the right questions, in order to use the collective intelligence in your design work.

One interesting example of using collective intelligence to help real scientific research is the puzzle game FoldIt. Playing the game speeds up the AIDS research done by scientists.

Ordinary people can contribute for faster progress with the research just by playing and combining their intelligence with other people around the world.

Players of the game managed to decipher one of the structures that has been challenging PhD scientists for 15 years. Collectively, they found solution in 10 days!

Other ways to use collective intelligence is to formulate well structured questions in your product surveys.

Let’s say you want to estimate how frequently your users will be using a particular feature. Asking such questions and getting the responses from the diverse audience can give you a very accurate estimate even before developing the feature itself.


Voting websites, rating websites and other similar platforms are a good example of how the collective intelligence works in products.

If you are building a platform that will be facilitating a lot of content and data you can make use of collective intelligence. It can help you moderate the information and even regulate what will be more important for other consumers.

Make sure to provide easy and concrete way for the users to express their opinion and unique intelligence. You can use that feedback to shape the experience of the product. Think of Reddit voting system for example.

Final thoughts

In the book You Are Not a GadgetJaron Lanier argues that collective intelligence (a.k.a. crowd wisdom) is best suited for problems that involve optimization, but ill-suited for problems that require creativity or innovation.

As a Designer, I would argue that collective intelligence is also super useful when facing creative and innovation challenges. Being able to collaborate with many different people helps lift up the group intelligence and produces amazing results. Especially when there is a pre-establieshed decision maker.

Remember we are living in a connected world. Collective intelligence will be more and more important part of making great design and good decisions. Use it to your advantage.