Lead User Innovation

The sports industry has always been a fantastic field research environment to investigate user innovation theory.

The term “Lead User” was developed by Eric von Hippel, Professor and Head of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in 1986 and 2003.

“The Sources of Innovation” (Eric von Hippel)

“Democratizing Innovation” (Eric Von Hippel)

Most user developed products and modifications are developed by users with lead user characteristics:

• They are at the leading edge and their needs will later be experienced by all other users in that market,

• They anticipate relatively high benefits from obtaining a solution to their needs and therefore innovate;

So far the theory…


Two weeks ago I participated in my first sprint-triathlon (750m swimming, 20km biking, 5km running). An exiting sport – not just combining three different disciplines, but also involving a lot of strategic planning, tactic and lead user innovation. I always find it incredible how innovative participants get in order to save seconds for winning: modified and combined swim, bike and run wear that provides fast changing times, high carbon food supplies knead to small bites and stuck to the bike frame, modified drinking bottles with straws and quick to change bottle holders, comfortable foot straps that hold the time measurement chip and many more. All with the same purpose: to gain a benefit from the solution that no commercial producer has yet thought of.


Since this was my first competition and I didn’t plan a lot ahead, my own user innovation approaches were quite simple – the result: I lost important time, especially during the tricky changing periods and finished 71st out of 83. Nevertheless, I am quite happy with the result and will now fully concentrate and get highly innovative for the next competition.

Other great examples of lead user innovation in sports are the first footstraps invented for jumps by high performance windsurfers in Hawaii in the 70ies or the first kite surfers at about the same time – check out the fantastic site of Zero Prestige!

Main characteristic: leading edge and way ahead of the mass market.

How open is your company regarding user feedback for existing and future products? Do you know today’s lead users of your products tomorrow? Feel free to contact us if you would like to learn more about Lead User Methods, User Innovation and Toolkits.

By Bernhard Hoetzl

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