Lead user analysis

Lead users are an extremely valuable cluster of customers and potential customers who can contribute to identification of future opportunities and evaluation of emerging concepts. Understanding these users can provide richness of information relatively efficiently.

The concept of 'Lead Users' was introduced by Eric von Hippel in the mid 1980s. He defined the lead user as those users who display the following two characteristics:

  • They face the needs that will be general in the market place, but face them months or years before the bulk of that marketplace encounters them
  • They are positioned to benefit significantly by obtaining a solution to those needs

Where a company has experience within a market place, it should be relatively straight forward to identify those customers who demand special solutions, push existing solutions to the limit or who have customised standard products to satisfy their own desires.


Von Hippel suggests that a key element in identifying lead users is to first identify the underlying trends which result in these users or customers having a leading position. The lead users are those who are at the leading edge of these trends.


Where possible, lead users should not necessarily be sought from within the usual customer base, it can be useful to look beyond existing customers perhaps to users of complementary or substitute goods or in analogous markets. In addition, the lead users may only have an interest in improvements or changes to specific elements or attributes of a product.


There are few industries of product types where there are no lead users who have requirements or demands ahead of the rest. By targeting these clusters, it is possible to identify opportunities for future products and evaluate emerging concepts. Where possible, if lead users are sufficiently interested, then they can be considered as a part of the extended product design team. They may even be prepared to share the burden of investment in order to find a suitable solution.


Furthermore, if today's lead users do not find appropriate solutions from existing suppliers, then they could well turn into tomorrow's competitors.



  • Can be difficult to identify with no knowledge of the market place
  • Get input from all who interact with customers, including training, service, maintenance, sales, marketing, engineering and technical support

Further reading

There are some draft papers on Eric von Hippel's website including:

  • von Hippel, E. and Sonnack, M. (1999) Breakthroughs to Order at 3M (via lead-user methods)
  • von Hippel, E. (1986) Lead Users: An Important Source of Novel Product Concepts
  • Herstatt, C. and von Hippel, E. (1991) Developing New Product Concepts Via the Lead User Method: A Case Study in a "Low Tech" Field

For more information, please contact:

James Moultrie

E: jm329@cam.ac.uk

T:  +44 1223 764830

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