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Lead Users: A Source Of Novel Product Concepts

Eric von Hippel

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Accurate marketing research depends on accurate user judgments regarding their needs. However, for very novel products or in product categories characterized by rapid change—such as “high technology” products—most potential users will not have the real-world experience needed to problem solve and provide accurate data to inquiring market researchers. In this paper I explore the problem and propose a solution: Marketing research analyses which focus on what I term the “lead users” of a product or process. Lead users are users whose present strong needs will become general in a marketplace months or years in the future. Since lead users are familiar with conditions which lie in the future for most others, they can serve as a need-forecasting laboratory for marketing research. Moreover, since lead users often attempt to fill the need they experience, they can provide new product concept and design data as well. In this paper I explore how lead users can be systematically identified, and how lead user perceptions and preferences can be incorporated into industrial and consumer marketing research analyses of emerging needs for new products, processes and services.