I've been having many conversations lately about how best to learn from lead users. The conversation usually starts with differentiating a lead user from an early adopter.
Most people are familiar with early adopters. They are the people who are interested in a category, and are usually the first ones to buy new products in that category. In the category of portable music players, for example, these are the people who had MP3 players before the iPod was launched. They were so interested in what the MP3 player could do, that they were willing to put up with the fact that they were not particularly easy to use. Early adopters are willing to spend the time to learn all about the new product, and they love being the first one to have it.
In contrast, a lead user in this category would be the person who would say, "I'm really interested in the music. I want to spend time interacting with the music when I want it, and how I want it, and I'm not going to spend time learning how to use a gadget or put up with its limitations." They may stick with older solutions until something better comes out, or they may actually invent their own, new solutions.
When I'm doing consumer research in an effort to guide breakthrough innovation, I want to learn from the lead user. If I were to develop a new solution in portable music, I would want to talk to people who were passionate about portable music. And ideally, I would want them to be people who shunned current solutions as not good enough.
Many companies approach the task of developing a breakthrough innovation by trying to learn from people who are highly involved in their products. This is a great way to learn how to improve the existing product. But if you want to create a truly groundbreaking product or service, you need to find new ways to deliver what your product is doing for them. And the best way to learn what the product truly needs to do for people is to identify and talk to lead users.