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 yon 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 lead-user research projects between 1997 and 2002, among these Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), Nortel, Kellogg, Pitney Bowes, Philips, Nestle, Gillette, and Cabot (Table 1).
Processes and tools have changed in the years since the initial development of the lead-user research method. Yet it remains a powerful tool for fresh, new thinking. The method can be used to achieve different types of business outcomes beyond developing new products and services; new business models, new product platforms, new technologies, and new markets have all been generated through lead-user research projects. I have worked directly on four lead-user projects, as project leader and lead-user consultant, each of which had a different goal: A joint project between Bell Atlantic (now Verizon) and 3M was intended to develop concepts for products and services for the telecommunications field technician of the future (see "My Lead User Story"). A Pitney Bowes project involved developing a new business model for the company's entry into the package shipping space. The Gillette team used the lead-user research method to spur technology innovation. The fourth company (confidential) was looking to leverage their core technology expertise to create new growth platforms for both near-term and longer-term opportunities. The practice of lead-user research has evolved to accommodate the emergence of the Internet as a tool for identifying and communicating with lead users, among other developments, and to incorporate lessons learned over the past decade.
A History of Lead-User Research
Lead users are individuals or firms who have product or service needs beyond what is currently available in the general market. They have a strong enough need to significantly modify existing offerings or to create new products that do not even exist yet. A lead user is motivated to innovate in order to solve his or her own problems rather than to sell a product or service (von Hippel 2005). The identification of lead users emerged from von Hippel's observation that, in certain industrial fields, innovations most often come from users; for example, 100% of "first of type" innovations in scientific instruments and semiconductor process equipment come from users (von Hippel 1986). …