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LEAD Innovation Blog

Read our latest articles on innovation management and innovation in a wide range of industries.

Date: 03-Oct-2018
Posted by: Angela HENGSBERGER
Category: LEAD User Method

What distinguishes LEAD User from customers?


The great importance of customer orientation in the innovation process is largely undisputed. Nevertheless, 50 per cent of all innovations miss the needs of customers and are withdrawn from the market. Traditional market research, with its focus on "average customers", often falls short of the mark here. Advanced LEAD users close this gap. They are ahead of their time and anticipate future needs of the target market.

Same as today, but better and cheaper?

Traditional methods of market research are often not sufficient for radical innovations, since they focus on the "average" or representative customer. However, representative customers are often limited in their creative scope due to their application experience. Familiarity with the manufacturer's current range of products makes it difficult to formulate the needs that characterise future market developments. The change requests of existing users and customers are usually limited to "the same thing as today, only better and cheaper".


Functional fixedness "of average customers as an obstacle to innovation

Especially the "best" customers, on which the company usually focuses, show little motivation and starting points for truly innovative innovations. This phenomenon is referred to as the "functional fixedness" of average customers. Market research that is geared to future market needs can therefore quickly reach its limits as a source of information for active customers.

Handbook LEAD User Method


LEAD users record the most breakthrough innovations

In order to overcome these limits, it is of central importance to find the "right users" or customers who can contribute relevant knowledge regarding future-oriented innovation ideas. MIT professor Eric von Hippel developed a very effective method for localizing these users back in the 1970s. The LEAD User concept is based on the result of a study which has shown that the greatest share of breakthrough innovations comes from customers, not from any customer, but from LEAD users.


Who are LEAD users?

LEAD users are "advanced users" or users, inventors and pioneers who deal with problems in a specific area for which there is no solution on the market. Regardless of whether they are customers from the target market, employees of the company or users from analogous industries, these users feel the need for innovation much earlier than the broad mass or the average customer.

LEAD users have a pioneering status - their needs can be used to draw conclusions about the potential needs of the rest of the market. Eric van Hippel has characterized LEAD users by the following features:

1. LEAD users today have needs that the market as a whole will only be in demand in the future.
2. LEAD users hope that an innovation will be of great benefit to themselves. Therefore, they often become active themselves and work on solutions or cooperate with companies.

An example illustrates these characteristics again. The mountain bike was developed by cyclists who were dissatisfied with the existing offer. They felt the need to cycle through forests and mountains. As there was no prospect of such offers on the market, they themselves experimented with suspensions, tyres, suspensions and frames - until the mountain bike was born in today's style. An orthopaedic surgeon played a decisive role in the development process, and as a LEAD User he was able to bring his skills from an analogous industry into the development process.


LEAD users ahead of early adopters in the product cycle

Most customers are located somewhere in the main part of the "routine users". These customers - like the LEAD User - also have a sense of need, but at a much later point in time than the advanced LEAD users. 

  • LEAD User (2.5%): In the product cycle, LEAD Users are still ahead of the "early adopters". They are the pioneers among users whose special needs will be relevant to the mass market in the future. LEAD users actively participate in product development, often creating their own prototypes and developments based on need.
  • Early Adopter (13.5%): The visionaries among customers use innovations much earlier than the masses. They act as opinion leaders and adopt new ideas even when the product is not yet 100 percent mature.
  • Routine users (68%): The majority of customers rely on security and can be influenced by Early Adopters when making decisions. The new must have already been proven itself; small but secure progress stands in the foreground (Early Majority). Or, however, the environment forces change if all others are already using innovation. In order to remain competitive, they are forced to participate (Late Majority).
  • Laggards (16%): Customers in this category are the last to pick up on innovations. Here you can find the skeptics who only buy an innovative product when it works completely flawlessly.


What LEAD users are not

In order to define the concept of the LEAD user even more precisely, below is a brief description of what LEAD users are not:

LEAD users are not "innovative customers", pilot customers or "beta users" who use a new product before the broad market launch or improve it in cooperation with the manufacturer. LEAD users provide the impulse for an innovation long before it is even developed and launched on the market.


LEAD users are not members of a focus group

Focus groups are often used in new product development to generate innovative ideas. The participants of these groups are selected on a representative basis for the target market or the (targeted) users of a product. LEAD Users, on the other hand, are not average customers, i. e. they are not representative of today's target market, but rather users with special needs that are often neither customers of the manufacturer in question nor come from the same industry.


LEAD users are not members of an innovation panel

The majority of LEAD Users are "LEAD Users" for a specific innovation project only once. LEAD Users are not members of a long-term innovation community and therefore cannot be brought on board repeatedly for new projects.


LEAD users are not company founders

The vast majority of LEAD Users do not want to establish themselves. Some decide to found the company - for example James Dyson, who built prototypes and later founded the vacuum cleaner brand. However, most LEAD users have no interest in becoming a manufacturer. They only want an innovative product that they can use for themselves.


Conclusion: What distinguishes LEAD User from customers?

Well, what distinguishes LEAD Users from customers? LEAD users feel the need for innovative products much earlier than the average customer of the target market. For this reason, progressive LEAD Users should be involved in the innovation process as early as possible in order to use the know-how of trend-leading customers, external experts and employees for the innovation project. This ensures market-oriented innovations with low risk of failure.

4 Phases of the LEAD User Method


Born and raised in Vienna. Since 2012 she has been in charge of Business Development at LEAD Innovation with the functions marketing, sales and communication.

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