• John Bessant

Why bother with user innovation?

It’s hard to forget that wonderful scene in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ film in which the small group representing the People’s Front of Judea huddle together plotting the downfall of the invading army.  Reg, their ringleader, asks the question ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ – and is met with an increasingly long list which includes sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health. 

In similar fashion we could ask the same kind of question – ‘what have users ever done for innovation?’  And it won’t take long before there’s a similarly long list of ‘exceptions’ which prove the rule that users are a pretty potent force. 

For example, (deep breath) around the house we’ve got the vacuum cleaner, the dishwasher, bleach, the Miracle Mop…  If there are children involved then add to the list non-spill cups, foldable pushchairs, disposable nappies, Q-tips……. Out in the street you might use a foldable umbrella to help you run to your pickup truck, turning on your windscreen wipers as you drive to work. 

Where you’ll find your IT system storing things on Dropbox, perhaps running on Linux, browsing with Firefox, connecting via Apache servers.  (And if you are still producing physical printout and want to make a correction, brushing on Liquid Paper to correct the mistake).  If you’ve got the day off you might go windsurfing, skateboarding, mountain biking, perhaps capturing your adventures on a Go-Pro camera. 

And if you’re unlucky enough to have an accident while doing so your hospital will be full of hundreds of other user innovations developed by nurses, doctors, technicians and porters. 

All of them reminders of what user innovation has done for us.

And that’s not even the full answer to our question.  Because these are just the specific examples where we have a name and identity for our user innovator.  Behind them is a hidden army of hundreds of thousands of others – in workplaces, on farms, around the home, in offices and shops, in churches and scout groups, in fact everywhere.  What these ‘hidden’ user innovators share is the challenge of a problem for which they come up with and try out a workaround, a hack, a solution to help deal with it.

We’re only just beginning to get a measure of how much innovation begins with user ideas. Studies by NESTA in the UK, for example suggest that close to 10% of product innovations and 15% of process innovation begin in this fashion – and that’s almost certainly an underestimate.  Smart companies recognise the huge value which employees – as users of their processes – can contribute through suggesting improvements.  Companies as diverse as Toyota, Liberty Global and Fujitsu regularly receive thousands of ideas and these translate to savings running into millions.

Users are a hidden ‘front end’ of innovation, highly motivated, prepared to experiment and tolerant of things not working right first time.  So whatever we do – whether we’re a commercial company trying to launch new products,  a public sector authority trying to improve services, a social innovator trying to work with disadvantaged  people – it makes sense to try and bring this perspective to bear. And for every employer it’s a no-brainer – if people are natural improvers, hacking their way around things that bother them in the workplace, why not try and harness this tide?

Of course users are often not so skilled at the ‘back end’ of innovation, being able to scale the innovation, make it work at the right reliable quality and for the right price.  That’s the kind of thing that may well take a more formal innovation process and many of the resources we associated with ‘mainstream’ innovation. 

Marion Donovan and Valerie Hunter-Gordon may have invented disposable nappies but it took Procter and Gamble to build the global business out of them.  J. Murray Spangler’s vacuum suction sweeper helped him keep floors clean without the dust which aggravated his asthma – but it was William Hoover who built the invention into a viable global business.

So we’re really looking at what Eric von Hippel and colleagues call ‘free innovation’ – a different model of the innovation process in which there is a partnership of some kind involving both users and producers/scalers of innovation. 

Even if we don’t go as far as operating a full-scale joint venture there’s plenty to suggest it might make sense to listen to and work with users.  For at least three good reasons:

  1. They know stuff. More accurately they understand both the problem they are trying o solve and its context.  They may not be able to put it into words but they have tacit knowledge which is critical, not only in directing search to possible solutions but also to understanding what will be compatible with that context.  That kind of knowledge is often ‘sticky’ – not easily accessible to a third-party trying to come up with a solution to a common problem

  2. They have a high incentive to innovate – it’s about solving a problem which matters to them.  Frustration, annoyance, exasperation are all powerful drivers of a mindset which wants to find a better way so the motivation is there.  But their problem might well be one which is widely shared and so potentially there’s a much wider market in which to apply their ideas

  3. They aren’t afraid to try stuff out – they experiment and learn. They are tolerant of imperfection and prepared to pivot around an idea until it works.  They’re an R&D system made flesh, a highly motivated start-up.  Look around any farm and you’ll quickly see examples of improvised solutions, a kind of ‘scrapheap challenge’ aimed at fixing nagging problems. And you can find the same kind of approach in many different contexts, from the home to the hospital, from the world of sports and leisure to  battlefield surgery and humanitarian disaster relief.  User needs – particularly urgent ones –  drive rapid experimentation and learning.

If users matter when is a good time to engage with them?  Again three clear messages from research and experience:

  1. As early as possible.   Innovation is a bit like dough – in the early stages it’s malleable, can be pulled and shaped into the right form.  But once it’s baked it’s hard to change the shape – and the results might be indigestible.  Research repeatedly shows that bringing in users early is a key factor in ensuring better quality design – and it helps ensure downstream acceptance since the innovation is, at least in part, based on their ideas.

  2. The response to Covid-19 has reminded us again of the power of ‘collective intelligence’ – many minds focussed on trying to solve problems. And such crowdsourcing isn’t just about increasing the number of minds on the job – one of the big attractions is that asking more people increases the diversity of input.  They may see the problem from a different standpoint and be able to offer alternative pathways to follow.  So again, tap into their ‘sticky wisdom’ as early as possible

  3. At the start of the diffusion curve, when the idea is still being shaped. Users understand what will work in context so their input is invaluable in ensuring compatibility – that the solution will work in the world in which it is placed.  We know diffusion is a social process and a key influence on the decision to adopt or reject a new idea is ‘homophily ‘ whether it originates from ‘people like us.  User innovators are, by definition, such people and building on their insights can accelerate and amplify diffusion.

Last but not least, if we’re serious about working with users in our innovation process then we need to look at how we’re going to manage this.  Once again, there are three big areas to explore:

  1. How to find them? User innovators don’t advertise – we need to seek them out.  They are concerned with their problems, not necessarily ours and if we want to engage them the first move needs to come from our side.  Increasingly crowdsourcing channels make it possible to ask for ideas and insights but there are other routes to explore.  Within organizations employees can be invited to join ‘campaigns’, contributing ideas focussed on helping hit a key strategic target.  We can try scouting for them, hunting around places where they might talk with their users with similar problems – communities of practice – user groups, online forums and clubs. 

  2. Even if we’ve managed to recruit enthusiastic users to our cause there’s a second challenge – how to hear them? As we’ve already said users know a lot but may not have the language to communicate their ideas with. We need to find ways to give them a voice, help them articulate their ideas.  Tools – especially those based around design thinking – are powerful ways to help draw out their sticky knowledge about that might work, what won’t fit and why. 

  3. The thing with innovation is that it isn’t about the single lightbulb moment and the one big idea. It’s a process of elaborating and refining, of adapting and pivoting, of shaping and learning.  So it makes sense to find ways not just to find and listen to users but to do so on a continuing basis.  The key word here is co-creation, working with them on shared ‘boundary objects’, prototypes which gives their ideas shape, but which others can add to, adapt and help develop.  We know innovation is hugely about such shared experimentation – the question is how to create the spaces in which this can happen

One answer is the idea of an innovation space, a ‘laboratory environment’ in which people can experiment and explore safely.  That’s the thinking behind innovation labs – and whilst these have recently become a kind of fashion accessory without which no large corporation can feel fully dressed, the underlying lessons about what makes an effective lab are beginning to emerge.  Successful labs are not accidents; research has identified a number of key lessons about how to set them up and operate them to enable effective co-creation.   

Given that the answer to our starting question – ‘what have users ever done for innovation? ‘ seems to be ‘quite a lot’, it might be worth spending time learning and applying these.

This blog is based on a keynote talk given to the Digital Living Lab Days, the annual conference of the European Network of Living Labs (ENOLL) in September 2020.

There’s a podcast version of this blog here


there’s also a song – Why users matter’ – which distils the main points

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Another innovation song….

Time for another innovation song, this time about user innovation … #innovation #entrepreneurship #creativity #user innovation Share this: Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window) Click to shar