Saturday, May 13, 2006

Innovate or Die - Users

Implement innovation that address the needs of “on-the-edge” users
Rather than focus on issues that have a high degree of popularity (requested often), focus on those that your “lead user” indicate are show stoppers for “on-the-edge” development. Those are the issues that the rest of your user base will eventually encounter. Eric Von Hippel notes:

The performance comparison between lead user and “find a need and fill it” idea-generation projects at 3M showed remarkably strong advantages associated with searching for ideas among lead users in advanced analog fields with needs similar to, but even more extreme than, needs encountered in the intended target market.

By addressing them when the lead users have hit them, it ensures that the majority of the user base is never affected by them. Expending effort on popular requests at the expense of completing functionality on the edge leads to the perception of the product as providing 80% solutions. Once again, Eric Von Hippel notes:

As was discussed in chapter 4, manufacturers have an incentive to develop innovations that utilize their existing capabilities—that are “sustaining” for them. Customers know this and, when considering switching to a new technology, are unlikely to request it from a manufacturer that would consider it to be disruptive: they know that such a manufacturer is unlikely to respond positively. The net result is that manufacturers’ inputs from their existing customers may indeed be biased towards requests for sustaining innovations.

Focusing on the “on-the-edge” users should also helps ensure that the innovations are more distinctive, rather than incremental. Yet again, Eric Von Hippel:

They found that users tended to develop innovations that enabled the instruments to do qualitatively new types of things for the first time. In contrast, manufacturers tended to develop innovations that enabled users to do the same things they had been doing, but to do them more conveniently or reliably.

Clayton M. Christensen, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, encourages something along the same lines in his book THE INNOVATOR'S DILEMMA: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail

In order to get essential resources for disruptive technology, savvy managers align the unorthodox product with the "fringe" customers who can put it to immediate use.

What we don't need is committee or user group that priorities enhancements based on popularity. What we need is a group of highly committed "on-the-edge" companies or developers who can push the limits of what the product can do. I'll discuss that more in a later entry on Customers.

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