Lead user involvement in the early innovation phase

Systematically involve experts and advanced users

Because of the rapidly changing technical and competitive conditions in the market, the period for development and introducing new products, services or even processes is significantly curtailed. To be able to withstand these changing demands, fast action or response to the market and continuous innovation development is essential for businesses.

The conventional approach of businesses of using their internal R&D departments increasingly makes way for greater involvement of lead users (progressive/pioneering users/operators) in the innovation process. The aim is to systematically use these people as a source of valuable feedback and relevant operational experience. This enables businesses to better understand their customers’ needs in the early phase of innovation and to begin to use this understanding to develop suitable strategies or innovation projects.

Application and benefits

The lead user method is another form of market research tool that can be used by businesses to develop new products, services, processes or even business models. It was originally developed in the 1980s by Eric von Hippel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Lead users can be described as those people who perceive and identify a requirement before it has been used in the market. They often spend their free time working very intensively with the product and thus coming up against problems that have so far remained unidentified. It is assumed that the lead user’s requirements represent the rest of the market’s potential requirements and ultimately would be of interest to many other users.

Image integrating lead users
Position of lead users compared with the overall market with regard to the requirement, following Churchill, J.; von Hippel, E. and Sonnack, M. (2009, p. 33)


Here’s how to develop innovations based on lead user requirements!

The progression of lead user project can be split into four phases; the duration varies between four and nine months, largely depending on the project definition. Each of the four phases is defined and supported by a range of core activities. In practice, the various phases are not strictly separated from each other. Therefore, some of the activities can be repeated in the subsequent phase.

Image phases of integration lead users
The four phases of the lead user method, own diagram following Churchill, J.; von Hippel, E. and Sonnack, M. (2009, p. 27)

Phase 1: Project preparation and search field definition

In the first phase, the focus and overarching topics of a lead user project are clearly specified and established by the organisation’s management. The first planning task is to define the new product or service areas and the overall goals that will drive the lead user project. More specifically, the following key questions that need to be answered include:

  • What are the initial interests (project focus and objectives)?
  • What types of market, new product or service are of greatest interest for this project?
  • What is the required level of innovation? (“Pioneering” innovations or enhancement of an existing range of products or services?)
  • Who is the target group of end users?
  • What are the key organisational/business objectives and limitations?

As soon as the focus and objectives have been established, the management selects the core team that will conduct the lead user study. This should be a multifunctional project team of three to four people with different experiences, skills and perspectives.

Phase 2: Identify trends and key customer requirements

Churchill, von Hippel and Sonnack (2009, p. 34) recommend beginning the second phase with a four-day team workshop. In these four days, the team should undertake a detailed investigation of trends and requirements and thus obtain an in-depth understanding of the key trends and their potential impact on market requirements and general market information.

The first two days should begin with gaining a comprehensive overview of all the current and relevant literature (e.g. specialist journals, market research studies). Every two to three days, group discussions and informal conversations are held to talk about interesting ideas and summarise their key aspects. A significant challenge facing the team is generally how to assess which trends really are significant. Questions to be posed when investigating trends include:

  • What events and conditions are driving the trend?
  • Who is affected?
  • What is the evidence that the trend will have a significant impact on future product or service requirements?

In this early phase of information gathering, the team also needs to consider the following questions:

  • What requirements and problems exist in practice from the users’ perspective?
  • What views do experts have on new customer requirements in the target markets?

On the third and fourth day, experts then identify the so-called megatrends and also technical trends (forecasts) and compare these with one another. At this point, scanning the literature helps to create an initial list of potential specialists (e.g. authors of articles, named experts in articles, journal editors).

When the team is convinced that all the necessary trend and market information has been gathered and interviews were successful, the exercise known as “framing” the requirement, where customer requirements are articulated, concludes the second phase. This primarily includes identifying and selecting the scope of requirements, gathering further data and information and the subsequent search for and definition of specific customer requirements that are central to concept development with a new product or a new service. It does not include identifying and selecting potential solutions for these requirements. Framing should take place over two half days, as soon after the interviews as possible. Details on providing the sequence for a framing process (see. Churchill, von Hippel und Sonnack 2009, p. 86ff).

The result should provide a comprehensible description for the following areas, which in turn provides a sound point of departure for identifying the appropriate lead users in the next phase.

  • Customer target groups: Specify the primary group of people who will benefit from and use the newly developed product or service.
  • Basic requirement: Record the key aspects of the requirements.
  • Key attributes of the identified requirement: State specific features that the new product (or service) will ideally address based on the data previously gathered.

As soon as the team arrives at a clear statement of the customer requirements, further data capture can follow in a way that is much more focused and systematic (Churchill, von Hippel and Sonnack, 2009, p. 85).

Phase 3: Identification of lead users

In this third phase, the core task is now for the team to obtain a more precise understanding of the functions, features and benefits that a new product or service should bring. Solution ideas and other necessary information is therefore obtained based on interviews with lead users and experts.

The search for lead users usually begins by identifying individual product users or businesses who use the product, who

  • already constitute a large part of the market with reference to their new product or service requirements, and who
  • may obtain significant benefits from searching for solutions for their requirements.

Potential lead users can be identified via the usual media channels, but particularly via fora, blogs and various social media channels, as well as ideas competitions. With their practical experience, they have an insight into the product or service, which most other people in the target markets do not.

Churchill, von Hippel and Sonnack (2009, S. 9) emphasise that there are three different categories of lead users that team members should progressively contact to obtain the best possible information for their project. The three types of lead users are:

  • lead users in the target application and target market;
  • lead users of similar applications in advanced “analogue” markets and
  • lead users who, on account of their practical experience and requirements, are facing problems.

In this phase, provisional alternative concepts are also developed to satisfy the customer requirements articulated in the second phase. The following questions support this:

1. Which specific product / service features will a new product or a new service ideally provide?
2. What benefits and value should this product or service offer target customers?
3. How do we envisage the forms that this product or service could take (e.g. key design features)?

Phase 4: Development of solution concepts with lead users and experts

The key activity of this fourth phase is holding the lead user workshops, in which the provisional concepts are enhanced or improved, or when new concepts are developed. The aim is to make full use of as many customer-orientated solution options as possible. The lead user workshop is an event that lasts for two to three days, where a group of lead users (max. 15-18 people) and experts, together with the project team and other employees in the organisation, work intensively on the design.

The interviews in the second and third phase are used to identify the majority of the lead users and experts who would make good workshop candidates. If this does not yield enough people, the project team needs to search for more people with the relevant expertise. Further details on lead user workshop procedure are given by Churchill, von Hippel and Sonnack (2009, p. 133ff).

Tips for fairness

  • Clear agreements on participation conditions for lead users in activities (use of and/or remuneration for ideas)
  • Respectful communication in the lead user workshops