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.”

In 2001, still the early days of online web networking for those outside the academic and research communities, von Hippel detailed for MIT Sloan Management Review two examples of early-stage user innovation communities. In “Innovation by User Communities: Learning From Open-Source Software,” he looked at how users of Apache open-source software were downloading, using, and further modifying the product, and he looked at how fans of high-performance windsurfing were sharing techniques and product modifications, voluntarily coaching each other and helping coordinate group activities such as meets. In both cases, he wrote, members of each community were following the simple adage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

More expansive in important ways, though, was the 2011 article that von Hippel coauthored for MIT SMR with Susumu Ogawa (Kobe University and also a research affiliate at MIT Sloan) and Jeroen P.J. de Jong (now at Utrecht University School of Economics). That article, “The Age of the Consumer-Innovator,” highlighted three important aspects of user innovation: who these people are, the raw volume of creative ideas they are generating, and what they do with their ideas — that is, the “new innovation paradigm” that their activity was creating.

The authors’ message to companies was clear: Embrace this new world. “What, specifically, should companies do?” the authors posed. “First, stop attacking your innovating users, whether intentionally or by mistake!” It is counterproductive, the authors argued, for companies to attempt to deter users who are trying, for instance, to inspect and alter a product’s software code, if those users’ intention is to make the company’s product better or to use it in novel ways that could lead to new markets.

The authors’ enthusiasm was as palpable as it was unconventional. “For many types of innovation opportunities, the creaky old paradigm of ‘We producers will do it for you’ is being competed away — and the new paradigm is both exciting and fun. ‘Getting with the program’ is a really good idea!”

For more on how companies can embrace the consumer revolution and encourage it among their own fans and clients, we invite you to revisit this article from our archives. Also check out our one-on-one Q&A with von Hippel, also from 2011.


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