Peter Dirk Conradie

Ghent University

Twitter: @peterpixel

Lead User Innovation: Exploring Disabled Persons as Product Innovators for Wearable Interfaces

With reported high failure rates of new products, user involvement in product development is seen as a way to increase customer satisfaction. It comprises a wide variety of methods, including co-design, empathic design, or ethnography. A very specific form of user participation is through lead users. Lead users can be identified as: 1) being at the leading edge of an important market trend, and experiencing needs that will later be experienced by many users in that market, and 2) anticipating relatively high benefits from obtaining a solution to their needs, acting as motivation to innovate.

While the ability for lead users to innovate is well documented, there are some issues associated with the method. They follow from the estimate that only a small percentage of users are lead users, and that they are hard to locate. Given this, it is easier to recognize a lead user after they have innovated, as opposed to before the innovation takes place. This is a hurdle for harnessing innovative ideas during early stages of product development.

These issues have given rise to alternative approaches to the traditional lead user method, providing room for the role of disabled users – framed as lead users – as innovators. This includes experience of product use in extreme conditions, like driving a car while deaf; having needs that are not met by current devices; dissatisfaction with (assistive) products to the point of abandonment; or creating new products to solve an existing product deficiency.

Given its potential for improving quality of life, the domain that is especially appropriate for lead user innovation, notably in the context of disabled users, is wearable technology. Wearable interfaces are becoming more viable, and include use cases for persons with disabilities. In combination with smart environments, wearable interfaces enable information gathering about health status while presenting new forms of information sharing and communication. A focus for wearable technology will be new modes of controlling and presenting information. Persons with disabilities have certain expertise in using different senses to perceive information e.g. via auditive, tactile cues rather than visual, that may prove valuable in the design process.

To summarise, we identify the potential role of disabled persons as lead users in the design process, due to their adherence to certain lead user characteristics, offering an alternative to the traditional lead user method. We identify issues with the lead user method relating to scarcity of lead users. We propose wearable interfaces as product domain due to its suitability in the context of disability. We frame the following research question:

How can disabled users contribute as lead users for product innovation in the design process within the domain of wearable interfaces?

The contribution within this doctorate is to explore the role of disabled persons as lead users in the design process to contribute to product innovation for wearable interfaces. This follows from the hypothesis that because disabled persons exhibit several characteristics of lead users, they can act as innovators for certain products and in certain contexts.