LETTL, C. 2007. User involvement competence for radical innovation. Journal of Engineering and Technology Management 24, 1–2, 53–75.

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This paper discusses involving users into radical innovation (RI) process. The users may be incapable of contributing to RI due to functional fixations, inability to evaluate concepts without existing reference product or the high technological complexities involved. This is separate from the users being unwilling to contribute due to lack of time/resources or fear of becoming obsolete. In the past these reasons have resulted passive users only involved in the prototyping stage to evaluate the new products or “passive residual actors in the RI process”. Lettl quotes Chesbrough’s Open Innovation that external sources are important mechanisms to enhance companies’ innovative capabilities and builds a conceptual framework for user involvement competence and suggests ways to identify and involve users in RI process.

The conceptual model for user involvement competence has two dimensions: 1) Subjective that considers the knowledge about the characteristics of inventive users (which are close but not quite Von Hippel’s lead users), and 2) Interaction that describes how the user involvement takes place (level of personal interaction, number of users, temporal extent and social and professional competences of the people working with users).

Benefits from user involvement include acquisition of radical innovation, faster development times at a lower cost, better product performance, increased use friendliness (I’d call Usability here) and improvement to the quality of the company’s design decisions.

The author separates necessary user characteristics to three phases: Idea generation, development and Testing. These lists can and should be used as a search grid to identify users that are capable to contribute to different phases of RI process.

Idea generation phase:
• problem induced motivation, better solutions for every-day problems (high problem pressure is a key source for creative activities)
• in-depth domain knowledge i.e. access to subject field tacit [nonaka] or sticky [Von Hippel] knowledge
• openness to new technologies, leveraging analogical reasoning to transfer solutions to other fields
• either 1) access to multidisciplinary know how and resources for research, or possibilities to look outside one’s own scope or 2) strong intrinsic motivation i.e. inventing as a hobby

Development phase (three levels of inventive users):
Passive development contributors in the user domain
• problem induced motivation
• openness to new technologies (opinion leaders are often based on conventional technologies and therefore make poor RI informants)
• imagination capabilities
Active development contributors in the user domain
• all above and
• high level of expertise in user domain
• tolerance for ambiguity
• access to technological know how
• resources for research
Active development contributors in the technological domain
• all above and
• technological expertise or complementary technological knowledge “cross-qualification” to several fields

Testing phase
• Innovation tolerance: openness to new technologies, willingness to take risks and willingness to experiment
• Geographic proximity (face-to-face interaction if essential)

Interaction dimension of user involvement competence boils down to face-to-face selective interactions by trained and motivated user involvement experts with necessary number of inventive users. Permanent involvement of users for the duration of a RI process is wasteful, as in many cases the knowledge is too “sticky” to transfer. Early phases benefit most from a small number or very high quality users, while testing phases may require a larger group to assess the general market potential. Use of hired users as liaisons may not work as they quickly lose contact to real life situations and may not retain the respect of their peers.

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