Recent research shows that consumers collectively generate massive amounts of product innovation. These findings are a wake-up call for both companies and consumers — and have significant implications for our understanding of new product development.
The Leading Question
What is the role of consumers in product innovation?
- Consumers are a major source of product innovations; millions of citizens in three countries studied create and modify consumer products.
- It is getting easier for consumers to design and make what they want.
- Businesses need to organize their product development systems to efficiently accept and build upon prototypes developed by users.
It has long been assumed that companies develop new products for consumers, while consumers are passive recipients — merely buying and consuming what producers create. However, a multidecade effort by many researchers has shown that this traditional innovation paradigm is fundamentally flawed: Consumers themselves are a major source of product innovations.1
Recently, this consumers-as-innovators pattern has led to the framing of a new innovation paradigm, in which consumers play a central and very active role.2 Rather than seeing consumers simply as “the market,” as the traditional innovation model has long taught, this new paradigm centers on consumers and other product users. It explains why consumers are very important innovators who often develop products on their own.
In this article, we begin by reporting on the large extent and scope of consumer innovation, as documented by first-ever national surveys. Next, we explain how the survey results lend support to a new user-centered innovation paradigm. Finally, we discuss implications of the new innovation paradigm for both consumer-innovators and companies.
National Surveys of Consumer Innovation
National surveys of consumer innovation are essential to map the true extent and scope of the new innovation paradigm among consumers. Three first-ever studies of consumer product innovation were recently conducted with representative samples of citizens aged 18 and older in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Japan.3 (See “About the Research.”) All three surveys show that consumers play a very important role as product innovators.
About the Research
To reliably explore the scope of innovation by consumers, we developed a survey-based methodology that was implemented in three countries. The first survey was done in the United Kingdom by means of computer-assisted telephone interviewing. It included a representative national sample of 1,173 responding U.K. consumers aged 18 and over.i We then repeated the survey in Japan (with a sample of 2,000) and the U.S.