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Eric Von Hippel coined the concept of “Lead Users” in the mid 80s. It is commonly used in the area of product development. The development of this concept helped the marketing arena to identify key customers and develop new product concepts. One can develop Innovation management systems with the help of their understanding. Finding the essential product characteristics and driving the product development in a targeted manner. We have read about innovation being necessary in matters of compliance. This methodology can help a company improve its innovation strategy in all areas of the business lifecycle.

lead user

Lead Users are people who deal intensively with a problem for which there is no suitable solution existing on the market. The term is used both for business and private customers. It applies to both the physical goods sector, as well as for services. Furthermore, Lead Users are characterized by the following features:

• Lead Users have self-interest in solving a problem

• They have a good awareness of the problem which other users observe much later

•  Special needs of lead users, which the market will refer to only in the future. They have such needs much earlier than the average users

• Lead Users benefit from early innovations that can meet these needs. Therefore, they are especially motivated to become active and to work together with the company on the development of new solutions.

These characteristics make excellent and valuable partners of Lead Users. They contribute to the identification of the future opportunities on the market and also work actively on the development of corresponding products.

A Lead User is not necessarily a single person, but can be a group of a variety of users. They are not necessarily “innovative customers”, “pilot customers” or “beta users”. Also, they wont use the product for the first time (possibly before the launch) or optimize it.

Lead users can be a part of a focus group discussion but may not be a part of the group where representatives of the target market are needed. Lead Users have often not even used the products. They are users with special needs who often are not even part of the same market segment.

Also, a Lead User can not be repeatedly recruited for many projects. And they shouldn’t be! It is important to ensure as much diversity as possible. Lead Users play a central role and should be recruited when markets are strongly characterized by trends and trend reversals. Notable examples are the automotive industry, food or fashion industry. The methodology a company uses to systematically integrate Lead Users into the development process is unsurprisingly called the Lead User Method. Ideally, this method involves four steps:

• Identification of the most important trends of the market

• Identification of the Lead Users

• Workshop(s) with Lead Users for developing innovative concepts for the planned product

• Projection of results to the current market

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3M uses the Lead User workshop methodology to innovate many of their products. Thus, the lead user method represents an especially cooperative product development process of a company with its “customers”. This method though lucrative, holds risks. Especially when it comes to the development of more comprehensive and complex products this approach reaches its limits.

For more reading, refer to

Draft papers on Eric von Hippel’s website including:
1. von Hippel, E. and Sonnack, M. (1999) Breakthroughs to Order at 3M (via lead-user methods)
2. von Hippel, E. (1986) Lead Users: An Important Source of Novel Product Concepts
3. Herstatt, C. and von Hippel, E. (1991) Developing New Product Concepts Via the Lead User Method: A Case Study in a “Low Tech” Field.

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