There are many different understandings of innovation processes. One of the more interesting approaches is Eric von Hippel’s User Innovation. The basic concept of user innovation is that innovation rarely is done by producers. Rather, lead users innovate to solve own needs, and subsequently reveal their innovations freely. In fact, only 2% actually try to monetize inventions themselves. Users don’t develop finished products, they hack something together. The company turns the hacks into actual products. This leaves a big opportunity for companies.
Surprisingly (at least to me), von Hippel’s research shows that 77% of important innovations stem from user innovation. This fact is generally ignored as R&D departments, deliberately or accidentally, tend to take credit for lead users’ inventions. This can be fair enough as companies also put in a lot of work to turn the innovation in to finished products. But it is a problem that most of us in product development never hear these stories. This means there is a bias where we think corporations innovate more than they actually do.
Aiming to reduce this innovation bias, I’d like to share a short story about user innovation from my job as Chief Strategy Officer in Better Collective.
Some 11 months ago, I accidentally noticed a new referral in one of our analytics tool for bettingexpert. There are many new referrals each day, and it was mostly by chance I paid attention to referrers coming from http://www.florentsegouin.com/. Florent Segouin is an IT student from Université de technologie de Troyes in France.
With some help from Google Translate, I realised that Florent had created an iOS app, in order to access the tips from bettingexpert on his iPhone (we hadn’t launched a responsive version of the site at this point, making it hard to use on a smartphone). Although I could only see screenshots and a video, it was easy to see that he was onto something.
To find out more about the app, I reached out to Florent and asked for details about the app. In one of the first emails, Florent wrote the following motivation for building the app: “Thanks again for being interested in this app. As a user of bettingexpert, I was a little disappointed that no native app was available for smartphones, that’s why I decided to have my own little bettingexpert browser with some extra information, right into my hand.” A text book example of user innovation.
As we didn’t have an API at that time, the app was not very efficient or scalable. It simply scraped the website. So the app had potential, but had to be rewritten in order to serve a bigger market. This would obviously take more resources than could be dedicated in a pet project. So we set up an internship where Florent joined us in our office in Copenhagen, Denmark.
After 4 months of work where Florent worked closely with our designers, developers, marketers and me, we have built an API and an iOS app, which was launched in December 2013. In the first month, the app has generated ~2500 downloads and mostly gotten positive reviews. Currently, Florent is preparing the next version of the iOS app and helping one of our offshore developers create an Android app.
This demonstrates the value of lead users and user innovation: By addressing own needs, they can help companies understand and address general market needs.