One of the neatest innovation sources is the concept of “Lead User” introduced by Eric von Hippel of MIT in 1986. Finding Lead Users on the Internet using forums,blogs and social media is a great possibility , but first about the concept of lead users.
[ Note last update January 23, 2021- links and some text]
The video above explains the concept in von Hippel’s own words. To explain further: if you have a problem and your existing suppliers are unable or unwilling to help and you are really interested in finding a solution; something incredible can happen. This happens when you are an enterprising type and the problem bugs (i.e. troubles) you enough to find a solution. . A famous example is of scientists finding lab equipment that does not perform all they want the equipment to do. So the scientists try to ask the sales folks of the supply company and they are friendly but clueless as they are just trying to sell what they have ( remember this is the 1970’s… ). So the scientists devise the solution and it works! So they scale up and modify all the equipment they have. The next time the equipment salesperson visits, they proudly explain their significant innovation. Sales folks understand solutions and customer excitement when they see it. So they bring back the innovation and prototype to their own manufacturing and R&D. This product is now something that is already proven to work at the customer’s site: a sure recipe for new product success !
The trouble was finding the lead user in any category. A huge amount of legwork or at least phonecalling was involved. Following a snowball type of technique you had to call all sorts of people who might have vague connections to the the type of problem you were trying to solve in your industry. Such “solutioneers,” could be from a different industry as ABS brakes from the aerospace industry that reached the automobile industry.
Today however, with the Internet, lead users are very open to sharing their success online via forums,blogs, YouTube and social media. This sharing is mostly for for non-confidential information from the point of view of the lead user. Thus a scientist who studies microbes and diseases and modifies a microscope is not talking about the science surrounding the microbe ( a secret) but rather about the modification of the microscope that will help other scientists who are not getting solutions from the microscope suppliers.
Given that identifying lead users has become so much easier and cheaper today, it does seem to be an innovation idea to pursue vigorously, no matter what your industry.