The Customer-Inventor Revolution

For more than four decades, MIT Sloan’s Eric von Hippel has investigated the ways users of products and services improve them through tinkering and invention.

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“Historically, we’ve assumed that producers are the innovators,” said Eric von Hippel, professor of technological innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in a recent radio interview about how invention is getting reinvented. “But when you look at innovations consistently, users are first. Users are the pioneers. And there’s a very important reason for that: Producers want to know that a lot of people will buy whatever it is. Users have their own need, and simply care that their need is served.”

Von Hippel has long been a leading voice in the conversation about user innovation and the power of consumers to drive the invention process. His most recent book, Free Innovation (MIT Press, 2016), looks at a new wrinkle in the user innovation world: the movement to develop innovations that are given away as a “free good” with the purpose of improving the social welfare. (Von Hippel’s book is now available as a free download from his website.) His work has been championed in the past year by Pagan Kennedy, an author and contributing editor for The New York Times, whose own most recent book, Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), also looks at invention “at the level of the individual.” and focuses on how inventors see, as she puts it, “the most elegantly simple breakthroughs [that] can hide from us for decades.”

Von Hippel’s early work on user innovation included articles on the topic in the journal Research Policy in 1976 and in Sloan Management Review in 1977. In 1986, he introduced the idea of “lead users” to the field in a paper that was published in Management Science, “Lead Users: An Important Source of Novel Product Concepts.” He wrote that lead users are regular people “whose present strong needs will become general in a marketplace months or years in the future.” He said they are perfect subjects for company market research, but noted that they also are proactive about thinking about what they need: “Since lead users often attempt to fill the need they experience, they can provide new product concept and design data as well.

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