More on Lead Users

As I understand it, the term Lead User was coined by Eric von Hipple from MIT.  I highly respect the work he has done in identifying and codifying their value as the ideal group from which to learn from and guide innovation efforts.  One thing that I don't agree with, however, is that he tends to talk about lead users as the people from whom you find the ideas. 

As others have expanded on von Hipple's work, they are taking this point to the extreme.  They talk about doing Lead User research as if all you need to do is find the right people, and then sit back and take notes as the Lead User tells you what to do.

They then say that the toughest part of doing good Lead User research is finding them.  Of course it's tough to find the people they are describing, and I tend to wonder whether there are even enough of them out there to make it a worthwhile effort to even try. 

I suggest we get back to the basics here.  A Lead User is a person who has extreme passion, needs or other motivations that drive them to seek solutions beyond those that satisfy the everyday consumer.  Some of them may also be good at creating processes or solutions to do what they need to do, but most of these solutions are ways to work around the status quo.  Don't look for these people to do your job for you.  You need to learn from them; understand them from the inside and out.  You then need to pose a challenge to your organization.  "If we build products and services that do _____, we can succeed and lead in this market."  You then need to design the products and services that will satisfy those goals. 

The Lead User can't tell you how to do that.  Expect to learn a lot from them, but don't expect them to push your pencil for you.