Eric von Hippel: user innovation and the revolution in consumer product design

Eric von Hippel By Eric Smalley
November 20, 2012

Many people are product designers, even if they don’t know it. In fact, millions of people have become innovators but are generally not recognized as such. They are the tinkerers who modify products to suit their needs, and they represent a paradigm shift in product design and development. SDM’s Eric von Hippel is measuring this trend and developing strategies for businesses to adapt to the changing landscape.

Von Hippel, the T. Wilson (1953) Professor in Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Professor of Engineering Systems in the MIT Engineering Systems Division, studies the sources of innovation and develops new processes to improve product development.

He recently conducted a study of consumer product innovation in the US, the United Kingdom, and Japan, and found that innovation is as much the province of product users as it is product producers. "Data shows there’s a huge amount of activity and it’s invisible," said von Hippel. "People assume that the producers are the innovators so they don’t measure user innovation at all."

Von Hippel and colleagues determined that consumers in each of the three countries spend billions of dollars on product innovation. They estimated that US consumers spend one third of the amount that businesses spend on consumer product research and development in the US. The researchers described the work in the paper "The Age of the Consumer-Innovator," published in the fall 2011 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.

The innovation paradigm shift from producer-centered to user-centered is catching many businesses flat-footed, von Hippel said. "Some new companies are built around that concept," he said. But "many traditional companies still don’t get it at all, so we’re in a transition. To convince people that the world is different now is not an easy task."

The key is to help businesses tap into the wellspring of consumer innovation. "Many of the things that companies develop internally are already developed by user communities," he said. "If companies could simply get these lead users to work with them, they could do a much more successful job of innovation," he said.

To support user innovation, businesses need to organize product development systems to accept prototypes developed by users, said von Hippel. Businesses also need to create developers’ toolkits and user forums, give credit to user innovators, and avoid the stifling effects of unfocused intellectual property protection strategies.

Von Hippel is writing a book that describes changes in innovation, including user innovation and crowdsourcing.

Von Hippel joined the MIT faculty in 1973. "My father was a professor here too, and I actually have been hanging around the place since I was 12 years old," he said.

One aspect of MIT that stands out is the faculty’s high level of practical experience, which is particularly useful for teaching in the SDM program where most of the students are midcareer professionals, said von Hippel. Another aspect is the high degree of collaboration. "Professors are very accessible and there’s no real sense of hierarchy," he said. "People are delighted to work with each other across levels."

Eric von Hippel