User-Driven Innovation: What it Means and Why it Works

User-driven innovation is a very interesting emerging phenomenon, one that is explored thoroughly in Eric von Hippel’s illuminating book, Democratizing Innovation. Von Hippel is a Professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and has been involved in the research and theory of user-driven innovation for about two decades now. In his book, he casts light on several aspects of user-generated innovation, from the reasons why users are driven to innovate, how they go about doing so (both independently and collaboratively), how these innovations are shared and disseminated, and how manufacturers can benefit from user-generated innovations. Here are short summaries of some of these ideas:

Why do users innovate?
The short answer is that users (here referring both to individual users as well as user firms) innovate because most products and services available in the commercial market only partially meet their needs. These mass-produced items and services are generally made by manufacturers who attempt to design for the largest possible segment of the market, which often means that users’ needs are only partially met. This induces them to make modifications that transform the product or service to better serve their needs.

Another big reason why users innovate is because they tend to enjoy the process of innovation. Von Hippel illustrates this with the example of people who like crossword puzzles. Most people who like solving the daily or weekly puzzle would emphatically resist being shown the answer key; it is the process of solving the puzzle that makes the experience an enjoyable one, not just having the answers. This is especially the case when the user is passionate about a certain activity. For example, surgeons regularly produce innovative new instruments based on their experience and knowledge, and snowboarding enthusiasts have come up with numerous modifications and innovative designs that are suited to their specific needs.
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