June 5, 2009

Scratching an itch

Although I’ve read key works by Eric von Hippel and his disciples — particulary in open source — I wouldn’t consider myself a user innovation person. Certainly here at OUI 2009, I’m strongly considered as a disciple of the open innovation camp.

Sitting here in Hamburg at my second UOI conference, I’m getting plenty of opportunity to come up to speed on user innovation. Below is my sensemaking of the overall thrust of the UI body of research — in particular, my 5 stage of user innovation — and linking this to papers this week at OUI 2009 on each stage.

1. Creating tools
There is a large body of research on toolkits that enable individuals to create or modify the relevant artifact. (e.g. von Hippel and Katz 2002). But also other types of tools, such as those to manage communities and solicit contributions for crowd sourcing as with Threadless (cf. Ogawa & Piller, 2006).

One of the papers on tools this week was by Johann Füller and colleagues about idea generation/invention in Second Life. Obviously such tools are going to become more common in the field.

2. Finding the right users
Oversimplifying a little, the lead user literature focuses on finding the prototypical users, those who are best able to articulate needs and solutions on behalf of a large population. (Think early adopters of Everett Rogers or Geoff Moore).

A common way to find many users is through communities. These might be formally defined communities offline (e.g. the Harley Owners Group) or online (cf. Jeppesen & Frederiksen 2006). Or they might be a communities informally defined by their embedded social network ties — such as word of mouth, or the streak of weak ties.

In response to this, a provocative paper was that by Jacob Høj Jørgensen, who was trying to find lead users to develop energy efficiency ideas. He contrasted users that participate in communities with users that are not embedded (which he called “hermits”). He used a clever approach to find the latter — bribing (with chocolates) people at a tech support center to save the contact information of particularly knowledgeable people calling for tech support on an energy saving hotline.

3. Getting Participation
Not all users will use tools: they may not have the interest, they may not be able to figure the tools out, they may not consider it worth their time.

One paper by Christina Raasch and colleagues tried to measure the cost/benefit of participation in a user community. Another paper on medical device user innovation — presented by Karine Lamiraud — said that organizations contributing user innovations depends on available resources; there is a nice tie here to the literature on the optimum level of slack to allow producer innovation (Nohria& Gulati 1996).

4. Generating Quality Ideas
Most of the studies seem implicitly assume that ideas generated are good ideas. (Or, perhaps to be more fair, if there are lots of ideas, a certain percentage will be of high quality and high value). Still, I have not seen anyone explicitly study the tradeoffs between the quantity vs. the quality of ideas generated — it seems like an obvious opportunity.

5. Bringing Ideas to Market
Users solve their own problems, and in the classic von Hippel formulation they put these solutions back in the hands of the producer: the producer (if savvy) then incorporates the most general of these innovations available to a broader audience.

Sometimes they are happy just to keep the changes to themselves. Frank Steiner talked briefly this week about how “embedded toolkits” allow users to customize products after they buy them: these user innovations (think iPhone app choices) are highly personalized and dynamics.

More recently, researchers have looked at users getting frustrated about innovations not coming to market, and thus we have the field of user entrepreneurship (cf. Shah & Tripsas, 2007).

Lars Bo Jeppesen, Lars Frederiksen, Why do users contribute to firm-hosted user communities? Organization Science, 2006. DOI: 10.1287/orsc.1050.0156

Nitin Nohria, Ranjay Gulati, Is slack good or bad for innovation? Academy of Management Journal, 1996.

Sonali K. Shah, Mary Tripsas, The accidental entrepreneur: the emergent and collective process of user entrepreneurship, Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, 2007. DOI: 10.1002/sej.15

Susumu Ogawa, Frank T. Piller, Reducing the risks of new product development, Sloan Management Review, Winter 2006

Eric von Hippel, Ralph Katz, Shifting innovation to users via toolkits, Management Science, 2002.



Johnny said...

Hello Joel! It is indeed a very interesting experience to see how different people define open innovation, for instance the people at IPDMC may have a very different view or focus comparing with the people at UOI. Correct me if I am wrong, I think you are standing sort of in the middle of the road :)

Steve K said...

Hello Joel,

The International Center for Studies in Creativity (ICSC) at Buffalo State College has been studying creativity and innovation for over 50 years. There have been studies and papers written on the subject of quantity vs. quality.

Joel West said...


Of course you are right that there is a long literature about quantity vs. quality of innovations. Sorry I wasn't more explicit.

What I think needs to be seen is to apply these established processes and metrics to idea generation coming out of user innovation (in various contexts), crowd sourcing, and other similar distributed innovation phenomena.

Right now (in most cases) there seems to be an assumption that more ideas is better, and we know from this previous innovation literature that a more nuanced view is necessary to judge what is optimal.