Users of products and services, be they user firms or consumers, frequently develop innovations for their own benefit. Such user innovation is a long-existing phenomenon, but it has gained much momentum in the new millennium. The Internet has greatly facilitated connections between creative users, and at the same time cost-effective design and prototyping technologies are making it increasingly feasible for users to develop their own products and services.
Users have been found to innovate mainly because they want solutions that best serve their own needs. In general, their innovation activities involve no expectations of monetary profit, being motivated rather by self-rewards (such as fun, positive feelings of altruism, signaling of competence to the community of peers). This explains why users are typically willing to share their innovations without requiring payment. A problem of user innovation is that, since the benefit that others could gain is an externality for users, they lack strong incentives to invest in the active diffusion of their innovations. The consequence of this “diffusion shortfall” is social welfare losses.
There are several ways in which producers and service providers can help overcome these problems and benefit from the innovation potential of users at the same time. They can apply the lead user method to actively search for a small group of particularly highly motivated and qualified users, they can outsource product design work to their users via user design toolkits, and they can broadcast innovation challenges to an appropriate crowd of external problem solvers.