According to innovation expert Eric von Hippel, users are often the first source of new products — and that has important implications for businesses.
In an interview, Eric von Hippel, T. Wilson Professor in Management at the MIT Sloan School argues that ideas for new or improved products come first from users who develop improvised versions to serve their own needs. Manufacturers then may discover, polish and capitalize on user innovations – particularly if those innovations begin to catch on with a group of users.
Von Hippel has decades of research to support his theory. Over the years, he and other researchers have studied user innovation in a variety of industries – and found that the proportion of users who innovate can be substantial. For example, one study, conducted by Nikolaus Franke and Sonali Shah, found that more than one-third of members of “extreme” sports clubs had developed or modified sports products for their own use, while another study, by Pamela D. Morrison and others, found that more than a quarter of library employees modified computerized library information systems.
Particularly important, in von Hippel’s view, are lead users – sophisticated users who are the most likely to innovate to satisfy their own needs.