Using 'Lead Users' to Guide Product Development

by Chad McAllister

Lead Users Guide Product ManagementEric Von Hippel, MIT Innovation Professor,  coined the term lead users, defining them as (in “Lead Users: A Source of Novel Product Concepts,” Management Science, July 1986):

lead users are users whose present strong needs will become general in a marketplace months or years in the future. Since lead users are familiar with conditions which lie in the future for most others, they can serve as a need-forecasting laboratory for marketing research. Moreover, since lead users often attempt to fill the need they experience, they can provide new product concept and design data as well.

Many innovators recognize the value of lead users, but the trick is developing a systematic means of identifying them.

Sam Froggatte, the CEO of EyeLine Golf, a maker of golf training aids, found it easy to identify lead users. They turned to golfers who are truly at the top of their game, pro players. The idea is simple – if the very best golfers find value in a training aid, so will the weekend leisure golfer. I interviewed Sam to learn more about the principles he uses to create products for lead users.  See link for podcast interview below.

Selecting Lead Users

EyeLine Golf started out of necessity. Sam was getting ready for the PGA Senior Tour and his sons were in pro competitions. He needed a tool to help them all improve their putting but he couldn’t find one.  A trip to the hardware store for supplies and some tinkering in his basement resulted in a working prototype. When he took the prototype to golf courses for practice, other players saw it and asked about it. It was then he realized if the very best players – those on the PGA Tour and other pro players – found value in the training tool, recreational golfers would also. The pro players most quickly recognize (and create) trends for the golf industry. Developers of new products know they must be in sync with emerging trends to be successful and lead users provide those insights.

Principles for Designing for Lead Users

Lead users are quick to try a new product when it solves an important problem for them. They will provide feedback on product concepts and prototypes that they see value in. However, they frequently have little patience for products that don’t meet a need in a way they can use. To maximize the benefits of working with lead users, Sam uses three principles that guide all product development:

  1. Fundamentally sound – the product has to do the right things, built on sound principles and not faulty assumptions. It must clearly solve a well-recognized problem.
  2. Intuitive – products must be simple to use and require little to no training to use. If it has to be explained, it is too complicated and requires too much time for fast-moving lead users. They need to “get” the idea immediately and know what problem it solves.
  3. Un-embarrassing – products that golfers will use, carry with them, and tell their friends about. Lead users tell other lead users about products they are using to stay at the forefront of their industry. The product needs to promote this word-of-mouth sharing.

To hear more, listen to the interview with Sam Froggatte on The Everyday Innovator Podcast.

image credit: depositphotos.com

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Chad McAllister, PhD is a product innovation guide, innovation management educator, and recovering engineer. He leads Product Innovation Educators, which trains product managers to create products customers love. He also hosts The Everyday Innovator weekly podcast, sharing knowledge from innovation thought leaders and practitioners. Follow him on Twitter.

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