In the Lab or in the Garage?

Two recent articles explore the origins of innovation

November 16, 2011

Where is innovation happening? Does it primarily take place in a corporate product development department or in a back street garage? Two recent articles explore different sides of the question.

A New York Times article recently reported the findings from a British survey of consumer innovation completed in 2010. Led by Eric von Hippel, researchers at MIT's Sloan School of Management measured "home" innovation, the development and modification of products by users. The soon-to-be-published study surveyed 1,173 UK consumers and found that 6.2% of UK consumers—2.9 million individuals—have engaged in consumer product innovation during the prior 3 years.

According to the authors' calculations, the annual sum that these UK consumers spend making or improving products is 2.3 times larger than the annual combined product R&D expenditures of all UK companies. The study reported a wide array of product 'tinkering', covering adaptive sports equipment to lawn & gardening tools to electronic vehicle gadgets. These do-it-yourselfers are investing their time, energy and cash to meet a need not currently met by commercially available products. This goes beyond Voice of the Customer — it's Design by the Customer!

Von Hippel, who has researched innovation for 30 years, affirms these findings based on his earlier work. For example, he estimates that 77% of innovations related to scientific instruments come from users. The heart-lung machine developed by Dr. Heysham Gibbon is an example. Contrast those compelling findings to the article entitled "User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea." In this article written for Fast Company Design, authors Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen assert, "Great brands lead users, not the other way around." In their view, focusing on users will lead companies to continually make incremental product changes rather than to launch bold, radical new 'breakthrough' product offerings.

The authors suggest that user‐centeredness leads to similar products and brands, resulting in a "sea of sameness." Visionaries like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Steven Spielberg are essential to creating the next wave of innovation that fills our unspoken needs. But these same technorati will never (and never want to) take the place of the type of needs-based innovators who developed automatic dog feeders and tree trimmers, not to mention heart-lung machines.

Voice of the Customer is forever strong. The challenge is to capture the innovative voice of lead users and feed their input into the design process. Product development processes can be enhanced with methodologies, such as Design for Six Sigma (DFSS), which focus on ensuring a design's ability to meet customer requirements without the waste associated with trial-and-error approaches.

In the lab or in the garage? Both.