Pia Helminen: Advancing Lead User Methodology in the Fuzzy Front-End of Product Development
Most companies have come to realize that in order to remain in business, and especially, gain economic success, they need to be able to identify user needs and respond to those needs. The set of activities that takes place before the actual product development, the fuzzy front-end, plays a critical role in the competition of whose products meet user needs the best. The main characteristics of the future product are decided in the front-end, determining much of the rest of the product development process. Thus user needs can have the greatest influence on the product if already recognized in the front-end. Product development is still regarded mainly as the job of designers and engineers in a company. The lead user approach turns the tables and puts users to the center. Lead users face needs months or years before they become general in the marketplace. Lead users are also positioned to benefit significantly, if these needs are met.
The goal of this research is to explore the role of lead users in product development and advance the lead user methodology. Specifically this thesis and the appended publications aim to further improve the concepts and means available for lead user identification, and to gain more understanding and alternative means for transferring (lead) user knowledge.
Findings of the thesis include that the challenge of the companies is not only to open up to the possibility that a competitive solution might be developed outside the company, but that it could be developed to meet a need that is identified outside the target market of the product under development. If companies concentrate solely on the needs of the users in the target market, they very possibly miss insights from the lead users.
I show that besides high-performance users, also low-performance users can be seen as lead users. In addition, a product is always part of a net of crossing consummation chains in the user’s life, and in user’s standpoint it cannot be seen as unconnected. Recognizing the crossing points of different consummation chains and value systems makes it possible to identify in addition to lead users and situational lead users, also positional lead users.
User innovation toolkits have been proposed as a tool to for transferring the need-related (lead) user knowledge to the company. This thesis demonstrates contradictions between the toolkit theory and the optimum content of a toolkit, which leads to the conclusion that creating functional and efficient user innovation toolkits might be too risky a task in most product development cases. I recommend that companies would concentrate on lead user identification. If the lead user has already found a viable solution to his or her need, the solution could be transferred as such. If the lead user is still battling with the unmet need, what is to be transferred is the user need. This can be done through participatory methods, such as the P3D method developed in this thesis.
Helminen, P. (2012) Advancing Lead User Methodology in the Fuzzy Front-End of Product Development. Espoo, Finland: Licentiate thesis, Aalto University, School of Engineering.