Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How Lead User theory began

Now that I've been studying user-centered innovation for some time, I began to wonder where the first insight into this phenomenon came from. So I did some research and found a very detailed interview with Eric von Hippel in which he describes the genesis of his Lead User theory. I'm copying and pasting the portion I found most relevant but the whole interview is probably just as insightful:

Well, when I first came to MIT, ideas about how new products and services should be developed were based upon a manufacturer-centered innovation model. This model, in essence, instructs manufacturers to "find a need and fill it." The basic idea is that it is the manufacturer's job to accurately understand your needs, and then make the perfect product for you. In fact, this is still the standard model of the innovation process taught in business schools today, which is one reason that understanding of user-centered innovation is still at such an early stage.

Before I went for my Ph.D., I was an inventor and participated in a startup - and tried to rely on the manufacturer-centered innovation model as I had been taught to do. Full of confidence, I went off to talk to suppliers saying, "Well, here's a need I have for a new product you do not currently make." The uniform supplier answer was, "No, you don't. You need what we sell." It was just so funny.

For example, once I needed a fan that was higher-performance and smaller than anything out there. And so, I asked this company to develop it and sell it to me. I said, "I need it." And they said, "No, you want our standard one," and I said, "No, I don't." And then they said, "Well, it is impossible to build what you want - it's against the laws of nature - so you have to take what we have." So, I went to Princeton with my problem and I got an aerodynamic specialist there to design me the fan. I then took it to the manufacturer who said, "Well okay, we'll make it, but you have to buy the tooling. And you have to pay for them 10,000 at a time, and so on and so forth." So, we did all that. The fan was wonderful; it did exactly what we needed in the fax machine we were designing. (The startup I worked for made fax machines.)

A few weeks later, the fan company reps called me up and said, "You know, it turns out a lot of other people want your fan too. Can we use your tooling to produce it for them?" I said, "Sure, talk to our manufacturing guy, and I am sure he will arrange something." The arrangement was made, and shortly afterwards that company put out these ads saying, in essence, that "via our deep understanding of your needs, we knew you needed this new type of fan. And so, of course we developed it for you, our beloved customers."

I found this so interesting. I thought to myself, clearly the manufacturer-centered innovation model did not work in this instance. But there is such a strong belief in that model that the fan supplier thinks it did.

Anyway, I brought that insight with me to MIT. I began my own research with the idea that, probably, it was really the users who were the innovators, and often not the manufacturers. That was way back in 1976, and things just built from there. I then realized that I had to join with other innovation researchers to build a big enough playground of data and concepts in the arena of user innovation to make it attractive for other people to be able to do their own work. That is, we had to generate enough findings related to user innovation, and create a robust outline of a theoretical framework, so that other people would be interested and would start to plug into it. All that took a long time, but eventually, we got here.

Starting about 2000, user innovation related to the Internet, blogs, and open-source software began to become very visible. As a result, many people began to think, "Oh gosh, maybe the manufacturer-centered innovation model isn't the only way to go. Maybe innovation is really user-centered, and 'user-developed content' really does matter!"

At that point I and my academic colleagues were in a position to offer an academic framework to help people in their early efforts to make sense of a user-centered world. Anyway, that's my view of how things have evolved. As my colleagues can also tell you, it has been a really long slog. Wonderful colleagues who have helped are many. Some who have been very important during the past several years are Professors Dietmar Harhoff, Nikolaus Franke, Joachim Henkel, Christian Luethje and Karim Lakhani. It's much more fun to do this kind of early work with good friends. We can cheer each other up when our work gets dissed, as it regularly did in those days.

Thank you Tom Austin for doing this great biography. Here is a link to his complete article: http://www.gartner.com/research/fellows/asset_172822_1176.jsp

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