Lead User Research

Authour: D. Lloyd Gray
Edited by Christine Keene


Lead Users (senior members of a group using a product or process) frequently modify or develop systems and products to solve problems they are encountering for which there are no existing solutions. Locating Lead Users and using them as key informants can be a cost –effective way of developing new products and services or modernizing old ones.


Dr. Eric von Hippel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed the Lead User concept and first published it in the July 1986 issue of Management Science. He has written 2 books that touch on the topic: The Sources of Innovation (1988) and Democratizing Innovation (2005).


This technique is used for finding ideas that have been developed by people on the leading edge of a product or service that may be of use to others in their field.


While Lead User techniques can be similar to focus groups and regular expert interviewing techniques, it is unique in it’s interest in using high performing group members who innovate as key informants. While a focus group may ask users what innovations they would like to see, a Lead User interview would ask a user what innovations she has developed.

Using the Technique

The first step is determining if your problem lends itself to this technique. Industrial equipment and processes lend themselves to this technique. Most consumer products do not, primarily because of the problem of finding lead users: typically, a lead user will gain a personal benefit from his innovations. This is usually not the case for mass-market products (sporting goods are an exception).

Identifying Lead Users is a critical step. There are two suggested ways of doing this:

  • By looking at the leading edge of your target market; and
  • By looking at Advanced Analogue markets.

When looking for the leading edge of your market, there are two suggested approaches. The first method is to go where your users are. They are likely to spend time with others in the group and be invested in it socially. They may go to conventions, workshops, or weekend events. An added benefit of this method is that innovations may be openly displayed at such events. “Pyramiding” in the second method. People with specialized interests tend to know others in their field. By asking members of a community who they consider one of the top performers in their group, you can follow the chain until you find a lead user.

Another approach is the advanced analogue. This is a market with similar requirements to yours, but either with more extreme conditions or that has been around longer than yours. Users in this market may have information or techniques that help with your problems.

Once lead users have been identified, they have to be convinced to help you. This can take many forms: In some cases, the innovation may be openly displayed, vastly simplifying the procedure. Ski and other sports equipment manufacturers use many levels of sponsorship, ranging from free equipment to paid positions as professional Race Team members. Other companies may offer almost no compensation. This is because the Lead User may gain recognition or status in his group by having his innovation popularized; Lego is an example of a company that takes this approach with it’s “Adult Fans of Lego” group.


  • Task Analysis
  • Stakeholder Needs analysis


Examples of improvements that have already been tested by your users, and which may have the potential to be developed further.

Next Steps after Exercise:

If the item being developed is a manufactured product, prototypes will have to be developed. If it is a service or process, it will have to be tested.

Von Hippel, Eric. (2005). Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Von Hippel, Eric. (1988). The Sources of Innovation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.