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Lead User Research

User Innovation Research Initative Vienna Logo

The User Innovation Research Initiative is a research program which aims to deepen our understanding of the phenomenon of user innovation and is hosted by the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Vienna University of Economics & Business.

Innovative potential is concentrated among lead users.

  • Users have often been found to be the initial developers of what later became commercially important products and processes. Innovative activities are found to be concentrated among “lead users”.

  • Lead users are defined as members of a user population having two characteristics. First, they highly benefit from obtaining a solution to their needs - and thus innovate. Second, they are at the leading edge of important trends in the market - and so are currently experiencing needs that will later be experienced by many users in that marketplace.

  • Lead users therefore hold the potential to provide invaluable input in firms’ idea generation processes.

  • A method that aims to tap this potential is the 'lead user method'. A recent study at 3M highlights the value of this approach: new product concepts developed together with lead users showed a sales potential which was an average of eight times higher than traditionally developed concepts.

  • Knowledge on how to efficiently identify and integrate lead users into new product development is still limited, however.


In this line of research, we aim to extend lead user theory and refine the lead user method allowing more companies to convert the lead user idea into practice. Research issues we address here are, for example:

  • Antecedents and consequences of being a lead user: Apart from their innovative behavior, are lead users systematically different from other users? Why and how do users become leading-edge in a given field?

  • Identification of lead users: Lead users are rare – how can they be identified effectively?

  • The analogous market-effect: How valuable are lead users from analogous markets (as opposed to target-market lead users)? Are they even more innovative?

Video Tutorials

This series of 6 short (10-14 minute) videos offer practical information about 'Lead User' studies. Lead user studies are the front end for product and service development projects intended to create breakthroughs systematically. Each video addresses one major aspect of a lead user project.

The video series was written, produced and directed by Dr. Joan Churchill, a psychologist specializing in industrial training materials. They were made with support from 3M Corporation, and are offered here with permission from Prof. Eric von Hippel.

  • Video 1 (91MB): Overview of the lead user process

  • Video 2 (91MB): Launching your lead user study

  • Video 3 (91MB): Interviewing methods for lead user project teams

  • Video 4 (90MB): Identifying emerging market needs

  • Video 5 (89MB): Identifying lead users

  • Video 6 (88MB): Developing solution concepts  

Lead User Project Handbook

A practical handbook useful for teaching about or conducting lead user projects from the MIT, Boston, USA.

Key Publications and Working Papers

  • „Hienerth, Christoph, Lettl, Christopher. 2011. Exploring how peer communities enable lead user innovations to become the industry standard: Community pull effects. Journal of Product Innovation Management, Vol. 28 (1), 175-195

  • Kratzer, Jan, Lettl, Christopher. 2009. Distinctive roles of lead users and opinion leaders in the social networks of schoolchildren. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 36 (4), 646-659.

  • Lettl, Christopher, Rost, Katja, Von Wartburg, Iwan. 2009. Why are some independent inventors 'heroes' and others 'hobbyists'? The moderating role of technological diversity and specialization. Research Policy, Vol. 38, 243-254.

  • Schreier, Martin, Prügl, Reinhard. 2008. Extending lead user theory: Antecedents and consequences of consumers' lead userness. Journal of Product Innovation Management, Vol. 25 (4), 331-346.

  • Schreier, Martin, Oberhauser, Stefan, Prügl, Reinhard. 2007. Lead users and the adoption and diffusion of new products: Insights from two extreme sports communities. Marketing Letters, Vol. 18 (1-2), 15-30.

  • Franke, Nikolaus, von Hippel, Eric, Schreier, Martin. 2006. Finding commercially attractive user innovations: A test of lead user theory. Journal of Product Innovation Management, Vol. 23 (4), 301- 315. Download

  • Pötz, Marion, Franke, Nikolaus. 2006. The analogous-market effect in lead user research. Working Paper, Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration.

  • Lettl, Christopher, Herstatt, Cornelius, Gemuenden, Hans Georg. 2006. Users’ contributions to radical innovation: Evidence from four cases in the field of medical equipment technology. R&D Management, Vol. 36, 251-272.

  • Hienerth, Christoph, Poetz, Marion. 2005. Making the Lead User Idea-Generation Process a Standard Tool for New Product Development. Working Paper, Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration.

  • Franke, Nikolaus, Prügl, Reinhard, von Hippel, Eric. 2005. Efficiency of obtaining information via pyramiding vs screening. Working Paper, Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration.

  • Luethje, Christian, Lettl, Christopher, Herstatt, Cornelius. 2003. Knowledge distribution among market experts: A closer look into the efficiency of information gathering for innovation projects. International Journal of Technology Management, Vol. 26 (5/6), 561-577.


We have presented our research in this area at several international conferences, including:

  • Academy of Management (Annual Conference)

  • Open and User Innovation Society Meeting

  • American Marketing Association (Summer Educator Conference)

  • International Association for Management of Technology Conference (IAMOT)

  • International Product Development Management Conference

  • International Workshop on User Innovation

  • R&D Management Conference