A curious thing that I’ve noticed about social product development initiatives is that they tend to leave out designers and engineers (except the ones on the payroll.)

I can understand this when design and engineering is at the heart of a company’s sustainable competitive advantage–but in many social product development projects, it isn’t the case.

I’m going to use Quirky as an example. I’ve watched a few development projects on Quirky, and felt largely unmotivated to contribute. Not because I don’t have anything to contribute, but rather because Quirky wasn’t soliciting contributions where my contributions would particularly stand out. Choosing product names or colors may be important, but my opinions on these sort of things are no more valuable than anyone else’s. Answering these sort of polling questions holds about as much interest for me as participating in the customer service poll advertised on Home Depot receipts.

Now, if Quirky (or any other social site) were to ask questions where I have some domain expertise, the story would be different. Ask me about trade-offs between stepper and servo motors, and not only would I have an educated opinion, but I’d also be willing to contribute it. I might even be willing to help with motor sizing and drive design. (Once upon a time, I used to design motion/logic systems for a living.)

Of course, Quirky attracts a lot of contributors. I suspect it’s not because those contributors feel compelled to share their domain expertise, but rather because Quirky has gamified the process of contributing. It seems rather akin to voting for your favorite performer on American Idol.

An example of a social help site that takes good advantage of domain expertise is Stackoverflow, which provides social answers to programming questions. Through a combination of techniques, including moderation, voting, reputation building, and pure coolness, Stackoverflow manages to attract heavy hitters to answer serious programming questions.

Stackoverflow has been so successful that its creators have expanded the concept to a variety of other sites, covering everything from mathematics to garden gnomes. Well, maybe not garden gnomes. But my point is, that, with the right combination of pixie dust, it’s possible to attract serious contributors who have deep expertise.

Two other sites that do seem to attract real expertise are Innocentive and GrabCAD. They do this by offering serious challenges, coupled with appropriate compensation.

In the case of Innocentive, the challenges are often “non-trivial.” Not quite as hard as “fix global warming,” but in the same general neighborhood. Challenges tend to be in areas that just happen to have corresponding Nobel (or other international) prizes. And the rewards offered seem to be inline with the value of the challenge—ranging up to $1 million dollars.

GrabCAD doesn’t offer such high rewards, but it does offer challenges that seem more up the alley of design engineers. One recent challenge was to design a triple-clamp for an electric racing superbike, with the winner to receive an iPad2. In a matter of weeks, site members had submitted over 150 designs—not just pretty pictures, but high-quality solid models. I can’t say that the design of a triple-clamp is a particularly challenging engineering problem, as these things go, but I looked at some of the photos of the submitted designs, and was impressed. This was pro-level work. The challenge sponsor got way more than their money’s worth.

Something I’ve noticed about CAD designers and engineers is that they consider some things fun, and some things not so fun. Solving design problems is fun–which is probably why GrabCAD can get so much participation from its community members. To engage designers and engineers in a social product development enterprise, you have to focus on fun things, and make the not so fun things as transparent as possible.