Consumers in Front Seat of Driving Product Innovation


Traditionally product development was viewed as an activity proposed and executed by manufacturers. Customers were not thought of as being an integral part of the process, but merely consumers of the products. Today, however, that paradigm has shifted and it’s the consumers who are dictating the types of new products being developed and sold throughout the world. Not only are consumers playing a vital role in innovation, but are often developing products on their own.

Recent research conducted by MIT’s Management of Technology and Innovation shows that consumers today are collectively generating massive amounts of product innovation, sending out a wake-up call for companies striving to succeed in today’s highly competitive global markets. Three first-ever studies looked at the role of consumers in product innovation in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Japan.

All three surveys found that in all three nations, millions of citizens innovate to create and modify consumer products to better fit their needs. One reason for this is that it is getting progressively easier to design and make what they want for themselves. The cost of computer-based design tools is rapidly dropping, and today many adequate ones are available on the Web at zero cost, while the sophistication and user-friendliness of these tools are rapidly rising.

Once designs are created, recent advents in rapid manufacturing techniques help consumers manufacture their products. The cost of 3D printers has plummeted in price, making the technology accessible to a much wider group of users. Different companies specialize in the various techniques—from laser cutting to 3D printing—used to create high-quality parts or entire products one at a time, and do so at very reasonable prices.

The study showed that while many consumers are innovating new products, they rarely attempt to protect their innovations from imitators. Fellow consumers, however, do adopt a significant number of these innovations. What does this mean to manufacturers? These findings mean that companies that make consumer products have an unexpected “front end” of free innovative designs to serve as important feedstock to their own innovation pipelines in a wide variety of markets.

Product developers must think about how to reorganize their product development processes to accept and build upon prototypes developed by consumers. They need to take a close look at how they can adapt their current idea generation and concept design processes to incorporate the ideas of consumers and add these ideas to the innovation pipeline. They must also determine how to identify promising consumer-generated innovations that are gaining traction among groups of consumers.

Earlier research on user innovation has found that in both consumer and business-to-business markets, some users—termed “lead users”—are much more likely to develop commercially promising innovations than the average customer. Tested methods exist to identify these lead users, and companies can download the training materials they need from the Web at no cost.

So what’s the take-home message here? Companies must support user innovation. It is, after all, innovation that ultimately distinguishes them from their competitors and drives revenue.  Look for ways to interact with consumers by creating or frequenting consumer community websites or creating innovation contests to generate new product ideas from customers. Create documented, open interfaces to support modifications to products and “developers’ toolkits” to assist further.

The costs of consumer innovation are dropping due to better and cheaper design tools, better and cheaper Internet-based communication and group formation, and better and cheaper prototyping facilities. It behooves any manufacturer to not take advance of this paradigm shift by harnessing and leveraging consumer-driven innovation. Put the processes in place now to let your customers drive your product innovation efforts into the future.

Image by Ben McLeod

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