Babies are wonderful, a constant source of fascination as you share their discovery of a rich new world and see things afresh through their wide bright eyes.  But they also have side effects, some of which can bring you back to earth with a bump!  Dealing with nappy changing is a good example – a chore for most of us, but for a few people also an unlikely source of inspiration for innovation.

Back in 1947 Valerie Gordon-Hunter had become progressively more annoyed at the endless process of washing nappies for her three children.  With her hands full of dirty washing she began to daydream about some kind of disposable version. She looked around, couldn’t find one anywhere so invented her own – the Paddi.  It was a two-part garment made out of old nylon parachutes, tissue wadding and cotton wool; she made hundreds of the nappies using a sewing machine at her kitchen table, supplying friends with the product and constantly modifying the design.

She wasn’t the only mother with this sense of frustration; at the same time and across the Atlantic Marion Donovan came up with the idea of a cover which would stop the contents of a dirty nappy from soiling surrounding clothes or bed linen.  Once again the target was reducing the superhuman effort involved in constantly washing clothing; her invention was called the ‘Boater’ because of its resemblance to a boat. It involved a shower curtain as raw material sewn into a pair of pants which, with the addition of snap fasteners to replace safety pins, kept the nappy in place without soiling the surrounding clothes or bed sheets. And she hit on the idea of some kind of absorbent insert which could be disposable – experimenting with various mixes of cotton wool and once again nylon parachute material. Whilst rubber pants were already available to cover traditional nappies their effectiveness at keeping the contents in had the downside of being uncomfortable to wear and giving babies nappy rash. 

Despite interest amongst local mothers she couldn't persuade anyone to manufacture the Boater so developed and patented it herself; on its launch in 1949 it was a runaway success.  As the President of Saks Fifth Avenue store wrote to her’

"It is not often that a new innovation in the Infants' Wear field goes over with the immediate success of your Boaters……"

She didn't stop there; she began looking for a way of replacing the insert with a fully disposable version and after experimenting with different kinds of paper and once again finding no manufacturer prepared to take her idea seriously developed her own.

Victor Mills, a researcher with Procter and Gamble, also had the frustrations of nappy changing for his grandchildren as a source of unlikely inspiration. Equally fed up with the difficulty (and accompanying mess) of changing he set up a research project to improve the experience by making a disposable nappy. After experimenting with various materials they came up with a garment based on polyethylene wrapper around an absorbent paper pulp filler – and in 1961 Pampers were born. Fifty years later they sold around $10bn around the world.

It’s not just the nappies – anyone with children will recognise some of the other daily frustrations, like trying to negotiate a wheeled buggy through tight spaces.

Owen Maclaren was a successful aircraft engineer and pilot who had developed the retractable undercarriage for the Spitfire during the 1930s. On a trip to the US with his grandchildren in 1960 he was struck by the difficulties his daughter was having in taking her child’s pushchair on board the plane. On the flight he began wondering about making some sort of collapsible version.  He saw the connection between the mechanisms used in retractable undercarriages and his daughter’s problem and began working on the idea; in 1965 the first Maclaren buggy was launched, an idea which has gone on to grow an entire market segment around collapsible travel aids for children.

These are all examples of user-led innovations (ULIs), born not in the labs or design houses of big companies but in the experience of users wrestling with a problem. And what they also share is a mixture of frustration, courage and tolerance. Frustration – because something doesn't work and the annoyance fuels a desire to make it better.  Courage – to get stuck in and try, take some risks, experiment. Tolerance, because the first prototypes might not work as well as planned but perfect isn't the goal, progress towards making it better is.

(And we should probably add patience to the list because it takes time to learn and refine the solutions so that they can work for others. The starting point for James Dyson was frustration at the lack of suction in his bag-based vacuum cleaner – a journey which began in his garden shed and ended with the creation of a global business worth close to $2bn in sales was a model of persistence. But his attempts to come up with the better vacuum cleaner involved over 5000 prototypes and 5 years of hard slog!)

Frustration is a powerful and natural source of innovation. Try it for yourself – think of a service you’ve consumed recently and then think about your feelings about it.  Sometimes it might have been delight – but more often it is a mixture of annoyance and frustration.  ‘Why do I have to wait so long?  What was the point of that…..?  If only they would…?’  In short you have begun an innovation process in your head; the only difference between your idea and someone like Reed Hastings is in the follow through.  Annoyed at Blockbuster’s ‘late fees’ charge for renting a video he went home and began converting his annoyance into plans for a new business offering a better deal for customers.  ‘Netflix’ didn't arrive overnight and it now offers far more than ‘no late fees’ – but its origins were classic user frustration.

So what do we know about user innovation?

User innovators have two key characteristics - a high incentive to innovate and a willingness to experiment. It doesn’t have to be perfect first time, just as long as their solution moves them towards what they want – and success is initially linked to solving their own problem.

They’re not cranks working on the fringe, mad inventors far removed from ‘normal’ life.  Instead they can be found all over the place - for example the farmer adapting and modifying his equipment to tackle unexpected problems, the worker continuously improving the production line he/she works on, the mother coming up with aids to baby care, patients and carers coming up with innovations to make living with chronic disease easier, frustrated programmers writing software. (Linux is a classic example of a community of frustrated users sharing ideas and insights to create some of the most powerful – and usable – software in the world).

A rich-source for organizations to be tap

User innovation matters to users themselves since it helps them meet their personal needs and deal with their particular frustrations. But increasingly public and private sector organizations are realising that this is a rich resource to be tapped into – for two key reasons. First involving users at the ‘front end’ of innovation can improve the variety of ideas which feed into innovation. But it’s also important downstream in the later stages of innovation; diffusion of innovation is strongly influenced by how ‘compatible’ an innovation is with the lifestyles and context of the people adopting it. So if the idea comes from people like them there’s a good chance it will be accepted and adapted - think of the other interested mothers who enthusiastically helped Valerie Gordon-Hunter and Marion Donovan refine their prototypes.

User innovation has always been with us, it’s just that we’re only now beginning to realise its scope. For example, a recent UK study suggested that over 10% of product innovations and nearly 20% of process innovations owe their start in life to user ideas.  Companies like 3M improved the success rate of their new product introductions by engaging with ‘lead users’ to originate and shape the innovations they launched. And it’s not just commercial organizations – for example the Danish Tax Ministry improved the national tax take by deploying user innovations around how it could be collected!

Some researchers – notably Eric von Hippel who has pioneered studies in this field – see a new model of the innovation process emerging. Typically innovation is seen as some kind of funnel, in which many ideas are kicked around, promising contenders developed and eventually one finished version emerges to be adopted by others. But in the alternative user-led model we have more of an hour glass shape, with many ideas at the front end, some focused development of the core principle and then another explosion of variety as the idea is launched and users adapt and modify it.

New platforms to capture insights

In the fuzzy uncertain space which characterises the ‘front end of innovation’ we can not only increase the volume and variety of ideas, but also do so in ways which resonate with key user challenges. Tapping into the insights and experiments of frustrated users helps us ‘cross the chasm’, addressing real needs in context rather than using an ‘innovation push’ model. And innovation isn’t simply about ‘plug’n’play – as innovations diffuse so they are constantly being adapted, refined, reshaped to suit particular circumstances. It’s a world of ‘perpetual beta’ in which users play a central role as the agents of change.

There are challenges, of course, in working with this approach. For example:

  • how to capture and share user ideas across communities?
  • how to build and strengthen the ideas?
  • how to mobilise ‘the wisdom of crowds’ in judging and selecting ideas?
  • how to build a long-lasting community sharing updates and refinements?

The good news is that we are not only developing a better understanding of user innovation but also learning to harness new tools – especially online platforms – to help work with their insights. Life may still have its frustrations but there are now powerful new ways to share and build on them!

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