How do Users Influence Innovation?

by Kevin McFarthing

How do Users Influence Innovation?Innochat is a weekly Twitter chat involving a wide range of really interesting people from all over the world, linked by one thing – a deep interest and passion for innovation.  If you’re on Twitter, and want to join, feel free to connect every Thursday at 12.00 US Eastern time, or visit for more details, as well as the Twitter feed from recent chats.

One recent chat focused on the role of users and innovation.  We tried to distinguish Lead Users (LUs), Early Adopters (EAs) and Brand Advocates (BA), and assess the impact each one has on innovation.  Coincidentally I was on vacation that week and read The Innovator’s Cookbook, edited by Steven Johnson.  The book has a chapter by Amar Bhidé of Tufts University on Venturesome Consumption; essentially the work users need to do in order for any innovation to be effective.

This blog is an attempt to give a succinct overview of an area that has spawned many thousands of words; like many complicated subjects, distillation to a shorter form misses details but hopefully aids explanation and understanding.

Lead Users

The concept of LUs has been championed by the work of Eric Von Hippel at MIT.  His works shows that in areas such as open source software and some sporting goods, users are becoming inventors and innovators, and bypassing the traditional manufacturers.  A study by Von Hippel and the UK’s NESTA suggested that 67% of innovation comes from LUs.  There seems to be some controversy, with Bhidé suggesting that the influence of LUs is much less common than Von Hippel’s work would indicate.

On balance it seems that the extreme edge of LUs influences certain products dramatically, for example in open source communities.  Another example is Lego Mindstorms, where the AFOL (Adult Fans of Lego) community not only spends thousands of dollars each on Lego robotic products; they write the open source code that controls them, for free.

At another level, LUs take a new product and develop uses that the innovator had not anticipated.  This can create new sources of existing and future business, either through volume growth of the existing product, or incremental improvements embodied in future product launches.  On balance it seems that LUs play a much stronger role in creating new uses for new products, rather than developing new products.  A good example is the iPad, now used in many more ways than even Apple could have envisaged.

This aspect of LUs overlaps with Bhidé’s venturesome consumption, where users innovate new uses and uncover previously unanticipated potential.  This can work both ways, as negative aspects can also come to light.  There are also many situations referred to by Bhidé where an innovative new product requires substantial effort and creativity by the user to achieve the expected levels of performance.  One only needs to read a standard TV instruction booklet or operating system manual to empathize.  Why so many impenetrable acronyms?!  The work needed by users to reach competence and usability in these situations is in effect an “innovation deficit”.

Manufacturers can and should engage with LUs in the development stage, both on concepts and prototypes.  Testing with alpha and beta stage prototypes not only gives feedback on the likely commercial performance of a product.  It also gives the open-minded manufacturer new information about content, presentation and applications that can significantly improve the performance of the final version.  It is important to distinguish between user market research aimed to improve product and that intended to predict sales volumes.  In the latter case LUs are not representative and could give a distorted picture of the future of a product development.

Early Adopters

The EAs term comes from the work of Everett Rogers and his theory of the diffusion of innovation.  According to Rogers, innovation penetrates a user base through different segments – in sequence starting with innovators, EAs, early majority, late majority and finally the laggards.  The work of Rogers and others validated the model in many examples of product innovation as well as behavioural change in areas such as the reduction in drunk driving.

This work was extended by Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm”, arguing that there is a large gap between EAs and the majority of the market.  In order to be successful, companies need strategies to bridge that gap.  The importance of EAs is that they can provide a critical mass of users, enabling a product to stand a much greater chance of success.  They can also influence the early majority users, and can play a key role in “crossing the chasm”.

The challenge for every new product manufacturer is to reach and persuade both the Innovators and EAs early enough in the lifecycle such that sales reach levels high enough to ensure a good return, and to provide a platform for growth and future development.  A further opportunity in the age of social media is to encourage positive comments by EAs that can influence the next group, the Early Majority.  In this way they can become BAs as well.

Brand Advocates

BAs can play a different role in the diffusion of innovation by telling other potential users, either face-to-face or virtually, about the positive attributes of a brand.  That brand can cover products or services, and the positive comments can cover either the latest offering or all the members of the brand stable.  Brand managers with a good understanding of the concept of brand equity will ensure every new product adds value to the brand and doesn’t exploit it.

Let’s take an often-used example with Apple and the iPad.  Some BAs for Apple will promote the iPad simply because of their love for the Apple brand.  Some extreme Apple BAs will queue overnight to buy the latest Apple product as soon as it is available, seemingly no matter what the product is.  Other users will just love the product and consider it more important than the brand.

A note of caution here – as Graham Hill pointed out in Innochat, a negative comment on a product can have between three and eight times the impact of a positive one, of course in the wrong direction.

In conclusion, it is essential for innovators to engage with users on many levels.

  1. To understand what LUs and “ordinary” users are doing with their current products, and to look for clues, insights and inspiration.
  2. To engage with LUs during product development to improve the product.
  3. To recruit Innovators and EAs to the product as soon as possible after launch.
  4. To encourage BAs to make positive comments as widely and often as possible.

BAs are probably the most important users for the longer-term success of innovation.  Whether they are also an LU or an EA is less important than their willingness to promulgate the benefits and often love of a brand.

There, it’s simple isn’t it?

(Thanks to Graham Hill and Paul Hobcraft for input and stimulus on this post).

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Kevin McFarthingKevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.

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  1. Thanks for the great article. Crossing the Chasm is one of my favorite all time business books. Geoffrey Moore’s latest book Escape Velocity is on par with Crossing the Chasm and if you get a chance to read it and see how it applies to today’s fast changing business world you won’t regret it. Thanks again.

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