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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.