Eric Von Hippel has long been an advocate of user-led innovation but it is not always clear what user-led innovation really means. A newly released study on consumer innovation by Von Hippel reveals more than you might think. Haydn Shaughnessy delves deeper..

Like many in the innovation space I think of user-led innovation as a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t talk to their users?  It makes so much sense it’s almost a cliche.

Reading through Eric Von Hippel’s study of consumer innovation in the UK, written with Jeroen De Jong and Steven Flowers, however, shook me out of this complacency.

Consumer innovation is much more profound than simply being influenced by user’s needs. This is the user as lead innovator, the producer who historically we have overlooked as we weave a distorted view of where good ideas come from and how new products emerge.

The big news from the report (conducted for NESTA, London) is that consumers spend twice as much as companies in their own product development and adaptation efforts. What’s that about?

“We were asked to find out how much innovation ordinary people do with the products they use,” says Von Hippel. “What products in the last three years have you modified to make them work better for you?”

Historically it was thought that producers were the innovators

And the result is astonishing. It challenges us to rethink how we tell the innovation narrative. Listening to Von Hippel on innovation can be like that.

“Historically it was thought that producers were the innovators,” explains Von Hippel. “Because, of course, they can spread the cost, and justify the cost, of doing research and development. But when you look at it every market starts insignificantly, so for example in skateboards it’s the kids who develop them and it is the company, say a Mattel, that jumps on board later when the user has a product. The user innovates.”

Surely product development is a result of lab work, R&D, careful testing and experimentation. But of course the invention of social networking was entirely driven by users like Mark Zuckerberg. Mountain bikes, kitesurfing and skateboarding are other examples.

“It is the same for products in the consumer markets as well as in business products,” insists Von Hippel.  “Industrial goods are used by someone as much as are consumer goods. A business is also a user. For example the heart-lung machine was developed by a surgeon who needed one. The user in this case was a surgeon.”

Indeed. And doctors quickly began adapting the Microsoft’s X-Box Kinect for use in patient recovery programs and pain relief. The World Wide Web was ‘invented’ by a group of academic scientists who needed a better way to communicate, led by one who had a particular passion for the project, Tim Berners- Lee

“Soldiers in the Vietnam war used to mount guns on cargo planes. This became the blueprint for the helicopter gun ship,” says Von Hippel, extending the examples to a ripe source of user innovation, the military.

So what stops us realising how significant users are to the innovation process?

In part it is the narrative we have built up around good ideas. We are told they spring from science or emerge from mysterious processes. And the enterprises that manufacture products who take control of inventions through patents have a strong say in this narrative. There is a simpler answer.  We just don’t measure the right activities to understand innovation fully.

The Consumer Innovator

As the leading advocate of this new view, is it surprising to Eric Von Hippel that the consumer expends quite so much on innovation?  “No. It surprised everyone else but it doesn’t surprise me. Ever since Schumpeter people have thought producers not consumers innovate.”

So it seems that we have failed to tell ourselves the right story and the result of that is we now talk about lead-users and prosumers as a modern phenomenon, another one of those ‘change is accelerating’ impacts of the world wide web.

“What is changing,” cautions Von Hippel, “is that it is getting easier for consumers to innovate, with the Internet and such tools, and it is becoming more visible for the same reason. Historically though the only person who had the incentive to publicize innovation was the producer. People build institutions around how a process works and the mass production era products were built by mass production companies, but they weren’t invented by them. When you create institutions like mass production companies you create the infrastructure to help and protect them such as heavy patent protection. Now though we see that innovation is distributed, open collaborative.”

It seems we should be thinking less of lead-users as a source of input in the product development process, more of the anthropology of consumers, what they are up to and where the nexus of innovation exists, out there, among the masses of people who make things better each day. But to clear the matter up, is Von Hippels’ thesis really about lead-users or user-innovators?

“It turns out that the users are the innovators and when you take that into account a lot has to change. Marketing has to change. Marketing says let’s talk to our customers and see what they want. Instead you have to find those customers who are innovating and find out what they are doing.”

The impact of rethinking the user as innovator

The idea of innovation being driven by users carries some risks. It might dent a few egos. It might demand of us a rewriting of product history. It also suggests we are headed towards a huge fragmentation of markets if large companies decide to pick up on the different varieties of new products being created out there by consumers. Is that Eric’s vision? Because if it is  we have another barrier to overcome. Large companies are geared for scale – not fragmented markets.

“What happens is there are many ideas that only one user wants. Some of the ideas, like skateboards or mountain bikes, are clearly copied by other users and that begins to indicate a market. The heart-lung machine and kitesurfing are other examples. Markets evolve.”

The skateboard is often used as a case study of how companies had to provide customisation opportunities for users – the case studies said kids stopped buying skating magazines because of the rise of social media and manufacturers suddenly lost a way to reach them through advertising. They began making boards available for customisation because the power of their branding channel was in decline.

“The reason it is called a skateboard,” says Von Hippel, “is that the old product, the metal skates you and I used as kids are where it began. These skates came in two halves so you could shorten or lengthen them.  Kids took the skates apart and hammered the parts onto a board – hence skateboard. It became a phenomenon long before manufacturers got involved. The basic functions were all developed by consumers and the same is true of mountain biking, kitesurfing and many other sports.

But didn’t the manufacturers start creating blank skateboards for kids to customise rather than kids inventing skateboards? “That would be just decoration, right?,” says von Hippel. “When I talk to manufacturers they routinely say, yeah the customer produced that change but we don´t advertise that – because they don´twant to pay customers a fee or they just want the credit.”

Talking about innovation and skateboards can appear a little underwhelming. Gunsights seem a little specialised, Facebook however is monumental but even that is dwarfed by the web – developed by a guy in his corner cube looking for a better way to share images and text.

”There’s another example in mobile banking,” says Von Hippel. “People assume mobile banking is an innovation of mobile phone companies. How mobile banking began was with airtime cards. What users did initially to transfer money was to send their airtime card code to their village and have the local phone owner use that code. The airtime card code became a currency. You bought your airtime. You rang up the person in the village who had a phone. You gave her the code for a $10 card. She passed on, say, $9.00 to your family, and used the code for cheap calling. This was the basis of mobile banking. It also meant mobile agents were already in place when mobile phone companies took the innovation on. M-Pesa says it came up with mobile banking but it is not the case.”

So how do the enterprises Von Hippel deals with react to this research?  “Quite a few companies say the user is the designer. The UK study said there are a lot of users who are innovating. The question becomes what do companies do about this? Sometimes they have to hook up with users. The other things is they can go looking for these users and products.”

In order to do that of course we all need to rethink where good ideas really come from and deal with it.

By Haydn Shaughnessy

About the author

Haydn Shaughnessy is also the author of Platform Disruption Wave, Shift: A Leader’s Guide to the Platform Economy, and The Elastic Enterprise, and a former editor of Innovation Management. He writes about platform disruption at