Follow The Leader
By Peggy Anne Salz, Mon Apr 04 11:00:00 EEST 2005

Wonder where to look for the next big thing? New research from MIT expert Eric von Hippel shows how harnessing bleeding-edge users in the development process can yield breakthrough products and services.


Eric von Hippel's new book, Democratizing Innovation, documents how breakthrough innovations are developed by "lead users," -- users with a high incentive to solve problem, and that often develop solutions that the market will want in the future.

Von Hippel argues that a user-centered innovation process -- one that harnesses lead users -- offers great advantages over the manufacturer-centric innovation model that has been the mainstay of commerce for hundreds of years. To this end, he has developed a systematic model for companies to tap into the innovation potential of their lead user communities.

TheFeature: Why would mobile companies want to pay attention to lead users? After all, they already have in-house developers and targeted developer programs.

Von Hippel: First, let's be clear about lead users. These are highly motivated individuals, or even companies, who are on the cutting edge of technology use. They are not necessarily the people on the payroll or members of the development community, and this is a good thing because, while professional developers may have leading-edge technical skills, it's the lead users that have the leading-edge needs. This motivates them to look for and prototype solutions. As we know, necessity is the mother of invention.

Lead users therefore tend to develop functionally novel services -- services where the mobile vendor or service provider is likely to say, "Oh, I had no idea you even wanted to do that!" Just look at SMS: it's a lead-user innovation that caught the industry by surprise.

It pays to systematically identify and draw from lead-user innovation. The approach allows companies to draw upon a lot of new service prototyping and testing done by others, and for very little investment. A mobile games developer may hire over a hundred developers, but it can recruit thousands of lead users to develop on its proprietary platforms for free. Companies just have to do it right.

TheFeature: What do you mean by doing it right?

Von Hippel: I describe two methods in my book. The "lead user project method" is where companies tap into lead-user innovation; the "toolkit innovation project method" is about giving lead users the tools they need to tinker and innovate.

In both cases, the process used to find the lead users with the best ideas works a lot like tracking a hot news story. Like a journalist, the company has to ask the right questions of the right people, and network. The networking technique we have developed, which I call "pyramiding", is built on the fact that people who have a serious interest in a subject are likely to know others who are more expert than they are.

But don't design a Web questionnaire to identify lead users. A standardized survey won't provide enough information to tell you which people might be the actual lead users. You have to comb the Web for the publications, forums and thinking places where lead users might congregate, and you have to get out of your cubicle to meet them.

TheFeature: In your book, you talk mostly about product development. How do you know the lead-user approach can also create breakthrough services?

Von Hippel: A field study involving a major Swedish mobile telecoms company recently tested this and produced some surprising results (PDF). These researchers adopted the "toolkit innovation method" and supplied a sample of university students tools to develop their own services. Compared to the services generated by professional developers the students' services were by far more novel, creative and cutting-edge.

For example, one girl was frustrated because she was unable to find an apartment. She cleverly developed a mobile alert service that would contact her phone every time the university web site posted an ad for an apartment that fit her requirements. This insight can obviously become the basis for a suite of mobile alert services.

TheFeature: But you just said the lead users aren't always the ones with the skillset for service development per se. What will companies need to do to close this gap and empower users to contribute?

Von Hippel: That's a good choice of words. It's all about empowering the user and that's where the toolkit method comes in. Here mobile companies provide lead users in their customer base with a different kind of developer toolkit. It can be quite similar to the one their developers currently use, but it should also feature a user-friendly interface, for example.

The mobile space could learn a lot from the semiconductor space. There, user-friendly toolkits have made it cheap and easy for individual users to create and customize integrated circuits they want for themselves on the desktop, and for next to no money.

I confidently predict that mobile companies will be able to systematically create functionally-novel product and service breakthroughs -- provided they find the courage to develop a similar approach and so enable the thousands of lead users out there who can and are eager to make a contribution to the innovation process.