Finding Lead Users for Innovation
The title of the post refers to "Lead Users", so let's provide a basic definition for that before we unpack Google Slam. Lead Users are people who are solving a problem or addressing a new market using products and services that are already available, but they are extending those products and/or services in ways that haven't been "approved" or considered by the firm producing the product or service. Think Make Magazine, or the folks who hack the Wii remotes to do interesting new things. Lead Users are people who are creating the "innovations" of the near future. Spotting lead users and understanding how they are using or manipulating your product or service can give your firm great insight into new needs, new trends and new opportunities. The concept of a Lead User was developed by Eric Von Hippl, and you can learn more about Lead Users here or in his book Democratizing Innovation.
So, if Lead Users are demonstrating solutions that may solve mainstream problems or address new markets or opportunities, the key question in most firms is: how do I find them? How do I find the "lead users" in my market or industry? Probably the best place to find them is at trade shows and conventions, especially those conventions where the consumers get to demonstrate their application or use of your product. A good example: Brickfest, a convention for adult fans of Legos. Here, adults who are hobbyists can demonstrate the things they've made with Legos. And the product managers at Lego can observe their consumers and what they are doing/making with Legos that wasn't anticipated. Here the product managers can see how Legos might be used, and what new solutions the avid consumers are creating, and create new packaging or completely new products based on these creations.
OK, so what's that got to do with Google Slam? Google Slam is a website that encourages Google users to show interesting and unexpected ways they are using Google products. One video shows two young women, clearly not of Indian descent, using Google Translation to order Indian food in Hindi over the phone. Another shows a band singing songs based on Google instant search. What Google is doing is providing a means for Google enthusiasts to demonstrate new and interesting, or even unexpected ways of using Google tools. What's more, by creating a "competition", Google encourages these avid users to record themselves and post their ideas or solutions where the Google audience can view the solutions. Google product managers are watching these as well, and I'm sure are taking away ideas for new features for existing products, as well as ideas for new products.
Most firms have to seek diligently for their lead users, if they can find them at all. The smart thing that Google has done is to create a "honeypot" for Google advocates who can compete to show off all the things they are doing with Google apps. All the while Google team members are having lead users deposited at their front door. This is either the smartest innovation ideas we've seen from Google in quite a while, or I'm asserting a solution that Google didn't intend, but is sitting right there for all the world to see.
Innovations often happen when individuals "mash up" one or more existing tools or capabilities and create new solutions, new information or new insights. Lead users are people who do this kind of work because they want the best solution possible, even before their preferred vendor creates it. Now, Google can allow their most avid users to indicate products, solutions and features that will be valuable, and they are doing it as part of a competition or game. Nice move, Google. This innovation seems much more in line with what we've come to expect from Google.