August 11, 2008

Five steps for encouraging user innovation

Among the pool of user innovation researchers, a few have been studying sporting goods — and most of them were represented this week at HBS during the UOI 2008 conference.

In Boston for the conference were Sonali Shah and Nik Franke who wrote in 2003 about sailplaning, canyoning, boardercross (extreme snowboarding) and handicapped cycling. On Tuesday, I finally got a chance to meet Christopher Hienerth, author of an interesting 2006 paper on “rodeo kayaking.”

On Tuesday, I heard a great paper on user innovation in sailboats. I really liked the paper for three reasons: it’s about sailboats (more later), it has 50 years of longtitudinal data on user innovation, and some great take-home messages applicable to all user innovation. The paper by Christina Raasch and Cornelius Herstatt of TU Hamburg-Harburg about the International Moth sailing class was presented by Raasch.

Readers should contact the authors for the paper, but let me highlight the five factors they found that influenced (positively or negatively) the degree of user innovation:
  1. Technological complexity: users withdraw from hulls due to new materials that are not practical for individuals to handle.
  2. Regulatory barriers: new sailboat one design “Moth Europe” limits modifications, reduces tinkering benefits, and penalizes innovation through exclusion, although a few innovators persist.
  3. Customer satisfaction. As innovators improve technology, this increases dissatisfaction with fixed class design, so user innovation returns and experiments resume.
  4. Technology maturity. At times there are breakthrough innovations that make experimentation attractive. For example, when below-water foils first appear they are a breakthrough. Foiling technology is breakthrough, but as the technology matures then there are declining returns to innovation and thus less experimentation.
  5. Market concentration, in this case the advent of a mass-produced standardized design. The dominant firm (Bladerider) doesn’t support experimentation, and then users split into pro-standardization and pro-innovation groups.
I had a nice visit with Raasch at dinner Tuesday, which brought a final irony. It turns out she’d never sailed until recently. So while I had assumed (as had at least one other attendee) this was a junket to do sailing field research, actually the causality (of study to personal hobby) went the other way.

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Update: The research was published as a book chapter: Christina Raasch, Cornelius Herstatt and Phillip Lock, “The Dynamics of User Innovation: Drivers and Impediments of Innovation Activities,” in Stephen Flowers and Flis Henwood, eds., Perspectives on User Innovation, London: Imperial College Press, 2010.

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