Category B: Lead-users

Category B: Lead-users

What is it?

Lead-users are users who are either very competent with handling or has a great stake in solving a challenge. As lead-users are faced with a challenge early on, the purpose of the method is draw on their expertise and experiences. Lead-users are the experts who can solve the challenge together with you because they have experience and or interest in solving it.

How is it done?

Limit the challenge to a field of inquiry

You begin by finding out exactly what you want to know something about.

Find the lead-users

Find users who use your services competently and find users who have a great stake in solving the specific challenge you are faced with. 4-7 lead-users is a fitting number to do a satisfactory inquiry.

Prepare one or more workshops

Plan a workshop for your lead-users with a set schedule and a presentation of the purpose of and scope of the inquiry.

Facilitate workshop

The workshop is basically a focus group interview where the preferences and ideas of the participants are shared and mixed. During the workshops you should ensure a comfortable atmosphere, food and beverages, post-its, paper, markers and whiteboards. This will help create and maintain ideas for discussion. The workshop can contain several aspects of prototyping. You should have 1-2 observers during the workshop and they must also keep the discussions on target. Make sure you have notebooks or a computer and a recorder or a video camera to document the workshops’ findings.

Analyze the material

After the workshop you gather the ideas and write down your impressions. Group those viewpoints and ideas that the participants agree on and disagree on. Using this analyzed material you can have one or more possible solutions that can be evaluated using other ethnographic methods. Ideas can be gathered in a catalogue of ideas or be used as inspiration for other lead-user workshops.

What does it take?

Time frame

The method can be adequately done in 2-5 days depending on the number of lead-users and the preparation and analysis of the workshops.


  • A calm place to do the workshop.
  • A presentation on the challenge at hand for the participants.
  • Post-its, markers, a whiteboard and possibly some building blocks so the participants quickly can visualize and build mock-ups of their ideas.
  • Food and drinks for the participants.
  • A camera or a recorder can pick up nuances in the workshops that the observers may have missed.


The method takes 1-3 employees. They don’t necessarily need to have any specific skills. It can be advantageous to let the same employees plan, carry out and analyze the lead-user workshops. This will ensure a progression during the process.



Jack is a bicycle courier in a privately owned courier company. He has his own bike; however, not all the packages fit unto the stand on the bike. So he has modified the bicycle by building a broader stand fitted with edges and a removable cover. The other couriers use the company’s bikes but those aren’t very efficient. The packages simply don’t fit unto them and are not protected from the rain. That’s why the manager of the company suggests using Jack’s experience in a lead-user process to improve the company’s bikes.


The manager invites Jack and 2 of the company’s other couriers and 2 of the bike mechanics. They are to meet in several workshops to improve the design of the company bicycles. Jack starts by presenting the idea behind his own bike and demonstrates the problem he faced. He also shows work sketches for his bike. The mechanics comment on the drawings and suggest further improvements. They agree to rebuild the company’s bikes to be like Jacks. The other couriers are pleased with the new bikes as it solves the problem of fitting the packages unto the stand.


Jack and the mechanics build a new prototype and the other couriers test it. They suggest some minor improvements and they are incorporated in the final design.


The mechanics of the company rebuild the courier bikes based on Jack’s modifications. They now more adequately reflect the needs of the couriers because the packages fit onto the stand and aren’t damaged by the weather.

More on the method

The method contains elements of prototyping, diaries, scenarios, user-driven production and semi-structured interviews.

Further readings on lead-users:

Seybold, Patricia (2006) – Outside Innovation: How Your Customers Will Co-Design Your Company’s Future – Von Hippel, Eric

Democratizing Innovation (1986) – Cambridge: MIT Press


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