Co-designers and lead users

Co-designers and lead users

This article is part of THNK VIEWS. We bridge theory and practice on organizing imagination and innovation by extracting key implications and offering new insights to innovation practitioners from a rich database of research papers. This article builds on the research paper Lessons from Ideation: Where Does User Involvement Lead Us? by Fiona SchweitzerOliver Gassmann and Christiane Rau and discusses co-designers and lead users. 


We are slowly transitioning from mass consumption to customized, tailor-made products. Consumption has boldly evolved into a participatory experience in which users are actively co-creating both the products and experiences. More than 50 percent of Fortune 500 companies now use user co-creation to develop and launch new products and services. Despite the widespread attention and rising popularity of consumer co-creation in new product development, there is still plenty of room for improvement. A study by Fiona Schweitzer, Oliver Gassmann, and Christiane Rau finds that while great progress has been made in user-inclusion, many companies still see users as one big homogeneous group, thereby failing to take note of the different types of valuable individual input. This causes them to overlook and undervalue insights by specific user groups.

More than 50% of Fortune 500 companies now use user co-creation to develop and launch new products and services. Click To Tweet

Conducting their own semi-experimental research, they asked users to come up with smart home solutions. They divided users in four groups  —high-trend awareness, high technical skills, high technical innovativeness, and high ethical reflectiveness— and concluded that:

  • Users are predisposed to produce ideas depending on their domain-specific knowledge.
  • User’s specific knowledge is often not well understood and considered in New Product Development.
  • Original ideas are most likely produced by users who are trendy or technically innovative.
  • Technically feasible ideas are most likely to be produced by users with high-tech skills.
  • Users with high ethical reflectiveness come up with ideas that have a positive impact on society.

In other words: innovation managers could improve the output of idea generation sessions with users, by first scrutinizing which type of output they are looking for, and then including specifically those users into the idea generation exercise who have the necessary domain-knowledge to provide this type of output. This domain knowledge is not limited to technical knowledge, but can include very diverse knowledge domains, including ethically reflective knowledge that might be beneficial when looking for new product ideas that promise a positive impact on society. The authors emphasize that this is just one possible way of considering specific user input: “user skills are not the only criteria that explain the difference in the quality of user contributions during idea generation.”

Original ideas are most likely produced by users who are trendy or technically innovative. Click To Tweet

What other ways of user differentiation could we use to best capture consumer insight? Some look at “the freaks and geeks” in social niches, bringing together the most unlikely combinations of consumers (think homeless people, prescription drug addicts, etc.) to come up with unconventional and innovative ideas. Though perhaps not as far-out, we believe end-use categorization is at the very basis of user-inclusion for valuable consumer insight.

Consider an automobile company wanting to improve existing products or services, or perhaps disrupt the industry with a highly innovative product. The natural starting point would be to segment users by end-use.

For instance, distinguishing between convenience users, such as soccer moms, intensive users, such as commuters, and specific purpose users, like taxi chauffeurs. We could also introduce segments that buy cars to show off, to drive for fun, or to those that have all of these uses combined (which might be the target for a car-sharing program). These different groups of users are likely to have vastly diverse needs, experiences, and insights.

There is a fundamental difference between skills based segmentation and end-use based segmentation: should you look at your customers as amateur designers or as experienced users? Clearly the latter. This does not mean actively involving users in co-creation of new products can go out of the window.  Users are great product co-creators if you care to engage them, not because they went to design school but because of their product experience and their vested interest in helping design something that would work for them.

Users are great product co-creators if you care to engage them. Click To Tweet

At THNK, we use one design-thinking tool that brings it to the essence called “Your Momma”. It asks designers and anyone developing new products to come up with innovative products that their own mother would love to have access to. By engaging your own mother, for instance by co-creating a financial service that would really fit her needs, you would never tap back into her background as, say, a car mechanic to imagine a financial product that would be technically robust. Instead, you would explore together her personal financial situation, her specific budget restrictions, her own dreams and needs, and derive a financial product that would allow her to combine all of this and be exactly fit-for-purpose.

In other words: engaging users as co-creators, means asking users to tell you what they want. According to Schweitzer, Gassmann and Rau: “by including consumers as a co-developer into the innovation process, their usage knowledge can be accessed.” That is exactly the point.

So why not just conduct market surveys asking people for their needs? Why go on the arduous effort to engage users as co-creators? Co-creation has several important benefits. First it involves the users in making the inevitable trade-offs, for instance between functionality and cost. Second, co-creation surfaces needs that the market researcher might never have thought to ask for. Furthermore, co-creation allows the user to articulate by making – an approach that produces very different results. And finally, co-creation greatly increases user engagement and satisfaction – triggering DIY products that allow every user to do final customization herself.

To discover how your company can leverage the power of user co-creation, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.