Lead User Research for Breakthrough Innovation

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Lead-user research can help companies uncover both unmet customer needs and the innovative solutions that leading-edge users are developing to meet those needs.

Ivy Eisenberg
OVERVIEW: The best companies often work closely with their customers to uncover needs and wants that can be translated into new or improved product or service offerings. The lead-user research method goes a step further, looking not only to the typical customer, but to those users whose needs and preferences lead the market. These lead users, as they are called, will modify products or use them in unforeseen ways to meet their needs. The lead-user research method was developed as a systematic way to mine the insights and innovations of these lead users. Since it was pioneered in the late 1990s, the leaduser method has evolved and grown. This paper offers an update on the use of the method and on adaptations to increase its efficiency using online search and communities as well as an overview of lessons learned from experiences on more than 20 lead-user projects. KEY CONCEPTS: Lead-user research; Customercentered innovation; User innovation Most companies want the same thing—a healthy pipeline of breakthrough products and services that will provide robust and steady profits. To achieve this, companies often reach out to their customers directly in order to tap into what matters most to the people who will purchase their products and services. There is much to be learned from one’s current and potential customers. The lead-user research method goes beyond other customer-centered approaches, seeking insights not only from customers but from “lead users,” users who are so far ahead of the industry that they see no choice but to invent solutions to meet their needs. Lead users are tapped for their understanding of future needs, but even more, these visionaries provide solutions—or keys to potential solutions—for the companies that can discover these users and connect with them. As Eric von Hippel, who coined the term “lead user,” remarked, “This is not traditional market research—asking customers what they want. This is identifying what your most advanced users are already doing and understanding what their innovations mean for the future of your business” (quoted in Taylor 2006). In the fifteen years since von Hippel partnered with 3M to create a repeatable process to leverage lead-user innovations, various companies have used and adapted the lead-user research method to fill their innovation pipelines. Von Hippel’s research work and his popular book Democratizing Innovation (2005) have kept the notion of user innovations at the forefront of business thinking. Recent trends in user-centered innovation, open innovation, the open-source movement, and collaborative communities all have roots in von Hippel’s groundbreaking work on lead users and lead-user research. Lead-user research enjoyed a surge of popularity across companies and business schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In addition to 3M, many major U.S. companies ran leaduser research projects between 1997 and 2002, among these Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), Nortel, Kellogg, Pitney Bowes, Philips, Nestlé, Gillette, and Cabot (Table 1). Processes and tools have changed in the years since the initial development of the lead-user research method.

Ivy Eisenberg is a manager of technology planning and open innovation at Pitney Bowes’s Strategic Technology and Innovation Center, a group that focuses on crossbusiness-unit innovation for long-term growth. She was project leader of a joint lead-user research project with Verizon (then Bell Atlantic) and 3M for telecommunications field technicians and has served as a lead-user consultant for Pitney Bowes, Gillette, and other companies. She designed and conducted workshops on the lead-user research method for corporate venturing classes at Stevens Institute of Technology. She holds an MBA in marketing, with...
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