In other words, lead users are users of a product or service that currently experience needs still unknown to the public and who also benefit greatly if they obtain a solution to these needs. Because lead users innovate, they are considered to be one example or type of the creative consumer phenomenon, that is, those "customers who adapt, modify, or transform a proprietary offering" (Berthon et al. 2007).
The Lead User Method is a market research tool that may be used by companies and / or individuals seeking to develop breakthrough products. Lead User methodology was originally developed by Dr. Eric von Hippel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and first described in the July 1986 issue of Management Science. In contrast to the traditional market research techniques that collect information from the users at the center of the target market, the Lead User method takes a different approach, collecting information about both needs and solutions from the leading edges of the target market and from analogue markets, markets facing similar problems in a more extreme form.
The methodology involves four major steps:
The methodology is based upon the idea that breakthrough products may be developed by identifying leading trends in the to-be-developed product's associated marketplace(s). Once the trend or broader problem to be solved has been identified, the developers seek out "Lead Users"- people or organizations that are attempting to solve a particularly extreme or demanding version of the stated problem.
For example, a company seeking to create a breakthrough in flashlight design may seek out policemen, home inspectors, or others who require bright, efficient lights as part of their day-to-day business. Once these "lead users" have been identified, networking is employed and the lead users are interviewed so as to gain their insight into how they solve the problem for themselves. The lead users are also queried to determine whether they have knowledge of individuals or organizations who are considered to be "outside the market" and have even more extreme portable lighting needs than the policemen or home inspectors; in our example, these users might be photographers, divers, or movie lighting designers. (See the "Examples of Lead User Method" section of this article for more examples of lead user identification.) By learning from both the lead users and the outside-the-market users, companies may identify new methods or approaches towards creating innovative products that are true breakthroughs via ideas that may not have surfaced by simply examining existing users with traditional market research techniques.
Research on lead users emerged from studies on sources of innovation. It was first found that users (as opposed to manufacturers) are often the first to develop new products that are commercially successful (Enos 1962 Von Hippel 1988, Shah 1999). Additionally, it was found that innovation by users tended to be concentrated among the "lead users" of those products and processes (Von Hippel 1986, Urban & Von Hippel 1988, Morrison, Roberts & Von Hippel 2000, Shah 1999, Luthje 2000). These "lead users" were individuals or organizations who had experienced needs for a given innovation earlier than the majority of the target market (Von Hippel 1986). Recent research highlights the fact that lead users exist for services also (Skiba and Herstatt 2009, Skiba 2010, Oliveira and Von Hippel 2011).
Various studies have explored the effectiveness of this theory in terms of identifying any user innovations. The effect found in these studies tends to be very large; for example, Urban and Von Hippel (1988) found that 82 percent of a given lead-user cluster had developed their own version of, or had modified a specific type of, the industrial product under study... whereas only 1 percent of the non-lead users had done this.
Empirical studies have also found that many of the innovations developed by users have commercial attractiveness. For example, Urban and Von Hippel (1988) found that lead user theory can be effectively utilized in industrial software product development; Morrison, Roberts, and Von Hippel (2000) found that many IT innovations developed by libraries had broader potential value; and Luthje (2003) found that 48 percent of surgical innovations developed by surgeons in university clinics in Germany could be produced as commercial products.
Based on its widespread success, it has been suggested that the lead user methodology should be integrated into corporate new product development efforts (Urban and Von Hippel, 1988). Companies may benefit (to a large extent) as they try to learn from lead users about the needs and solutions encountered at the leading edge of the market. Increasingly, this type of customer integration is being discussed among innovation management scholars (Enkel, Javier, and Gassmann, 2005; Luthje and Herstatt, 2004). The idea is also spreading rapidly in the business world (Coyne, 2000; Dehne, 2003; Intrachooto, 2004); for example, lead-user concepts developed and used at 3M showed product sales potential that was an average of eight times higher than for sales of products using more traditional development concepts / processes (Lilien et al., 2002).
While the lead user methodology has proven to be very successful, select literature highlights some product development scenarios in which the Lead User method may be less effective. For example, the following was pointed out on October 14, 2007 on "TechITEasy.org":
Literature also suggests that an additional obstacle to the adoption of this kind of process is related to a general resistance to innovation and / or change that can be found in typically bureaucratic organizations; these organizations tend to resist disruptive changes in processes which many force the company to evolve, (although this is exactly the purpose of such an approach). While the lead user methodology can reliably lead to breakthroughs, adopting the approach can be difficult for some organizations and on the whole, the technique itself is useful to the extent that the product and / or service under study is lead user friendly (i.e. if it's not a top-secret or quick time-to-market idea). [need reference to the mention literature]
The lead user method can be utilized in any industry and at any level of product complexity. The following are examples where the Lead User method was utilized to create a new product which satisfied a specific need:
The lead user method was utilized in 3M's Medical-Surgical Division to develop a breakthrough surgical drape product. 3M assembled a team of lead users which included a veterinarian surgeon, a makeup artist, doctors from developing countries and military medics.
Hilti utilized the lead user method to develop a simplified pipe hanger. Hilti put together a lead user group consisting of lead layout engineers, researchers from construction departments of institutes, an engineer from a professional organization in Bonn, and two engineers from municipal building departments.
Nortel utilized the lead user method to develop a new class of web applications for voice, video and data. Nortel put together a group of lead users including law enforcement professionals, paramedics, military personnel, animal trackers and professional storm trackers.
Local Motors is the first car company to utilize the lead user method to co-create vehicles online with its virtual community of designers, fabricators, engineers and enthusiasts. The world's first vehicle produced using co-creative method is the Local Motors Rally Fighter.