Leading the Mainstream

Many of us often customize a product to suite our special needs. There are always people who keep pushing the envelope, to extract more juice from what’s available. Such people are called lead users. (Eric Hippel from MIT coined the term in 1986. Read more about it here and here

People, or companies watch lead users. Many a times, observing lead users is a way to improve your product, or even come up with new products. It may appear to be a rare usage by small group, but the potential of an unexplored market is huge. All one needs to do is convert such use cases to accommodate normal users. Usually, mainstream users do not know how to demand something that is not there.

Some of the lead usage can directly translate to mainstream, while some may require core changes. Take for example ABS, anti-lock braking system. Guess who was the lead user for ABS? Airplanes! Of course, what else one needs to stop without skidding, than the 200′ long, 200′ wide, 400 tonne flying giant? ABS quickly made its way into other fast moving objects like race cars, and eventually became a standard safety feature in any automobile.

In the above case, adaptation into mainstream happened without any change. Which may not be the case with some other products, like say, energy bar – a high protein food devised by top athletes to infuse max energy in the shortest/fastest way. If companies had introduced it as is into mainstream, it would have flopped badly because protein bars tasted like shit. Athletes didn’t bother about the taste and probably swallowed it! It served a different purpose. So, companies reworked the formula to add cocoa and sugar into energy bars to make them best sellers in literally no time!

Every lead usage need not translate into a successful product. Some of the brilliant ideas may not even see the common light. But communities like open source software take a very Freudian approach to the concept of lead users – allow anyone to lead the changes, and let the best survive. IMO, best of both worlds.

So, the next time you are customizing anything because it doesn’t serve your need as is, do a bit more – think how useful it would be if everyone knew about it.