Innovation – the Lead User Way

  • October 2014
  • Posted By Janet Muto

Did you know that bike manufactures did not design the mountain bike? The mountain bike was actually designed by a small group of riders – likely adrenaline junkies – in northern California who wanted to get more excitement out of their cruiser bikes. These innovators would take these bikes off-road on bumpy, aggressive, downhill terrain – which on traditional cruiser bikes could be a rather painful experience. In short, these riders took their cruiser bikes and enhanced them (mounted motocross handlebars, balloon tires, etc.) to be able to ride down a mountain safely and more comfortably.  As the trend started to spread manufacturers took notice and developed the mountain bikes that we know today.

Researchers categorized these types of consumers as lead users. Now, while this is a compelling story and example of user-led innovation, it is not unique. Advanced consumers are frequently solving unique problems every day by enhancing or “mashing-up” different products. In fact, lead users have been responsible for the development of many things we use today, from baby carriages to medical devices to web applications.


Let us take a step back and define these unique users – “lead users”.  Lead users are the most advanced users of a product or product space. They are those individuals that identify a need in the space before a solution is ever conceptualized, and stand to benefit significantly from finding a solution to that need. That said, their need tends to align with a future marketplace need. The lead user segment is ahead of all other categories on the product adoption or usage curve. Not only do they have these above average needs, they’re frequently able to address their needs by modifying products or services, or in some instances creating a completely new product.

The idea of lead users is not something new. The idea is a segment of consumers that MIT professor Eric von Hipple brought to the forefront in 1986. Today, consumer integration into the product development process is common practice in fact, consumer-driven insights is at the core of our practice here at High Start Group.

However, with the continued growth of consumer-driven development comes more questions about when consumer input appropriate and what type of consumers to leverage in the process. In addition to lead users, there are a variety of other segments that have been tapped – early adopters, emergent customers, regular consumers, pilot customers, brand evangelists, and so on. In my opinion, each can serve a purpose in product development, but if companies are looking to take the next step and truly innovate, I believe lead users are still the best tool in their tool belt.

Integrating Lead User Research into your Product Development Cycle:
I won’t go into full detail behind the process of lead user research as a quick Google search will point you to a number of places that can provide detailed instructions of the four phases. However, I will speak to the most important aspect of the methodology: the identification of lead users. This is usually the hardest part of the process because traits, behaviors, and attitudes vary for each market or situation. Some key criteria that lead users must meet include:

  • Experience and knowledge in the space
  • A desire to see unmet needs addressed in that market
  • Past history of attempting to solve unmet needs with new solutions

Think outside the box when looking for lead users. Look at analogous markets and uses for a product to stimulate the search for lead users. For example, the lead user group 3M leverage to develop a surgical drape included individuals in the medical field as well as makeup artists.

Once the users are identified, there is a range of research methodologies to employ to help in the concept design. For example, online communities or digital and video journals managed over a period of time can be used to identify needs in the space and work towards solutions. In-person workshops are very helpful for hands on creation of products – though this can be hard if the lead users are not local – in that instance, virtual workshops can be used.

So should you use lead users to move your products to the next level?
To execute successful lead research, a few things are required.

  • Time. This type of research requires multiple, potentially lengthy, steps to define the space, identify the users, and develop the concept. While it can take less time than traditional product development, it will be longer than research most companies are accustomed to.
  • Being very early in the product development cycle. Since a primary goal of lead user research is to identify a need AND then develop a concept, this approach wouldn’t be as useful if a product outline or even a broad concept was in the works. In this instance, other consumer-driven research would be a better option.
  • The desire to truly innovate. Companies that are hesitant to push the boundaries on what they are doing tend to shy away from this type of research because you never know where the results will lead you. The company that looks to lead user innovation really needs to be prepared to evolve and take the next step – if the market demands it.

If you meet these three criteria, then I strongly suggest taking a hard look at leveraging lead users to push your company forward.


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