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How to develop innovations with the Lead User Method

Developing new products, services or even processes is expensive. That is why the lead user method involves particularly advanced users in the creation process. How this makes innovation projects more successful.

Including lead users in your innovation process will leave you pleasantly surprised. The method is not only a sure way of incorporating third parties in the development of new things, it will amaze you in terms of innovation success, too.

What is a "lead user"?


Lead users are highly advanced users and inventors. As early as in the 1980s, the MIT professor Eric von Hippel identified this type of customer and user who are one step ahead of the market.

You can make use of these characteristics of lead users for the development of new products, services, and processes. Here I am briefly going to sketch out for you the four phases involved in such innovation projects. 

The four phases of a lead user project

If the lead user concept is applied for an innovation project, at Lead Innovation, we will split such projects up into 4 phases. In each of the four phases you must work meticulously in order for you to obtain usable end results. If you have not worked through a stage precisely enough, then it is best you go through that step one more time before turning to the next one.

Phase 1: Assembling a team for your lead user project


In the first step, you assemble your internal project team. It should be as interdisciplinary as possible so as to be able to assess and gage trends and requirements from different perspectives. The team should be composed of around five individuals.

Very important here are the roles defined in the "promoter model" of Professor Eberhart Witte:

  • The power promoter: This is a person from the company management, or at least the second level of management, who must have budget responsibility. The team member is able to turn the result of the lead user project into reality.
  • The specialist promoter: He/she comes from your research and development department. Specialist promoters are experts for technical requirements.
  • The process promoter: This person is a product manager or somebody from marketing or sales. Process promoters focus on the needs of the market and customers' perspective. 

At the end of the first phase, there is a constitutive meeting of the project team which is held in phase two.

Phase 2: Defining the search area for good lead user profiles


Before starting the search for lead users, you must finely narrow down the search area. If you set the boundaries of the search area too narrowly, this will block the path to creative solutions. Conversely, if the search area is too broadly defined, during the lead user conference at the latest you will discover that the participants differ too widely in their respective fields to work together on solutions. In other words: Your search area should be as narrow as necessary and as broad as possible.

The following is important in this phase:

  1. Clarify which technical processes are permitted and which are not.
  2. Set a deadline for completing the prototype. If this is not done, then the lead user concept mostly results in science fiction concepts that will never be realized.
  3. Match the search area with the relevant trends and the needs of the customer.
  4. Also include points of view of outsiders here.
  5.  If analogous industries are concerned, focus on those industries that are more technically advanced than your own.

Tip: You can arrange relevant trends in a priority matrix. For example, the trend of energy efficiency is currently more important for the industry than compact designs or the size of systems. Such narrowing has a big influence on the lead user profile and the subsequent search for suitable experts.

The exact definition of the search area and the determining of the relevant analogous areas then forms the basis of phase 3: The search for the right lead users.

3. Finding relevant lead users 

A lead user is an advanced user. The term "lead user" was coined by MIT professor Eric von Hippel in the 80s. He investigated market success stories very closely and found that in most of the cases customers (or users) had worked in collaboration.

In order to reach potential users, investigate in-house which customers of your company match the sought profile.

In the next step, you go on the search for lead users who come from similar fields, for example. For innovation departments or R&D departments not regularly applying this concept, this step can be particularly time-intensive. We at Lead Innovation have a lead user network of over 30,000 people worldwide, which makes our search a lot easier.

What is a lead user innovation?

Lead user innovation involves working with individuals or groups who play a pioneering role in identifying new needs or trends. These "lead users" provide unique insights and ideas that drive the development of new products or solutions and often lead to highly customized and forward-looking innovations.

Once the choice is made, the suitable lead users are honed down in several interviews. The focus here should not just be technical know-how, but rather the characteristics that are crucial to the success of the lead user conference.

You can read more about this in our white paper: 

4. Generating solutions at the lead user conference

The lead user conference lasts two days, and we normally hold it at a conference hotel.

Day 1: Idea phase

On the first day, the group should get to know each other more and come up with as many ideas as possible together using a wide variety of creativity techniques. Limiting factors such as price or technical feasibility are disregarded in the first step. Creativity should be given free rein. But remember: The group must never leave the defined search area.

Method tip: One option for generating ideas is to do some nagging. One group may "curse" existing products or solutions in a factually based manner. Then the tables are turned, and the group is called upon to present solutions for the criticized characteristics.

The entire group tries to arrange all the ideas into themes at the end of the first day. The decision as to which issues the group are to continue dealing with on the second day comes at the end of the first day.

Day 2: Concept phase

On the second day, the moderator splits the participants up into small groups. Each individual small group must draw up a detailed specification sheet for an issue defined on the first day. The contents this document needs to have is defined in advance by the project team of the customer. Such a specification sheet will typically contain a strengths–weaknesses analysis, a risk assessment, information about necessary partnerships with other companies, milestones, etc.

In order to give these projects a "face", an illustrator attends the two-day conference. This illustrator has proven time and time again to be an excellent catalyst for projects. After all, deriving an image out of somebody's head and conveying it on a piece of paper is a challenge. Each small group then presents their solution concept. By means of an evaluation form, the participants of the lead user conference vote on every concept presented based on different aspects, such as "technical feasibility".

You can see what the participants said about the lead user conference part of the method in this video:

Conclusion: Lead user concept workflow

By defining your search area as precisely as possible, a lead user project will then guide you more precisely to the goal. At the end, this concept may not provide you with many concepts, but they will be the right ones that are feasible for breakthrough innovations, matching the search area defined at the start. A lead user project also incorporates the expertise of people outside your operation. It therefore belongs to the method category of open innovationsuch as publicly advertised idea competitions.


Jannik Böckenholt

As an expert for New Business Development, Jannik is your reliable companion for new commercial ventures. When it comes to the restructuring of innovation processes or the application of innovation methods, the learned project manager guides you to your objective step by step, while making sure there is fun along the way with his inspiring storytelling in the workshops he moderates.

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