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Eric von Hippel and Consumer Co-Creation. Beyond Ethnography to Participatory Design.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 18, 2006

One of the strongest voices in the innovation and design space these days is MIT’s Eric von Hippel, who is head of the innovation and entrepreneurship program at the Sloan School of Management. Von Hippel writes a lot about user-led innovation, by which he means letting consumers get more and more involved in the design and execution of new products and services. Von Hippel is quoted in the Sunday NYT piece “To Charge Up Customers, Put Customers in Charge,” (nice head guys).

Here is one quote from the story: “It’s getting cheaper and cheaper for users to innovate on their own,” Professor von Hippel said. “This is not traditional market research — asking customers what they want. This is identifying what your most advanced users are already doing and understanding what their innovations mean for the future of your business.”

Something big is happening here. Technology is allowing people to design their own stuff and companies are increasingly in the business of providing tools, not products, to consumers. Today, people are making ads for companies. Tomorrow, entire services. This is one cool trend we need to follow.

Liz Sanders of tells me that “ethnographically-informed participatory design” is the next trend. It goes beyond ethnography and involves the active participation of people in the design and making of their products and services. I want to know more about participatory design.

Reader Comments

Steve Portigal

June 18, 2006 8:25 PM is an example of Kraft saying they are now open to ideas from the general public, and this gets called "Open Innovation." All Kraft seems to be doing is inviting submissions which they will then process. They aren't doing any sort of co-creation, or research, but just allowing people to send 'em stuff which they can then productize and market. Gee, thanks, Kraft.

I know this isn't really what you are describing in your post, Bruce, but I felt like this sort of effort and what you refer to get lumped together, and I'd offer this as a counter-example.

I have a little more (with some good comments from others) at

And a good piece (excerpts at from Wired recently about what Lego is doing to engage enthusiast customers who are thrilled of course to be involved with the company, even to be giving away their ideas to them.


June 19, 2006 4:32 PM

If you are interested in consumer co-creation, you also need to check out the work done by Professor Venkat Ramaswamy at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, particularly his book he wrote with CK Prahalad, "The Future of Competition: Co-Creating Unique Value with Customers."

Brian Phipps

June 26, 2006 4:33 PM

Corporations with a traditional, top-down "consumer" focus might have the farthest to go in setting up effective participatory design programs. Participatory design is a collaboration in context, where a company and its customers engage in creating mutual value. It's an engagement of peers and partners. Companies with legacy brands and product lines will have to transcend their own hierarchies just to get the ball rolling. Smaller companies will find it easier to collaborate with customers because they haven’t built such walls. They may be even freshly cut from customer cloth themselves. This may give them a key competitive advantage.


August 1, 2006 9:58 PM

Bruce, Eric von Hippel is pointing towards an overall trend, but I think it should be looked at on more than just one level. Instead of participating in the design or product stage only, we should also be looking the development of co-creation on the business process level.

Consumers should be participating in creating value, items, and (business) processes (VIP principle). The problem is that, especially in the latter area, not many businesses are willing or able to involve their customers - especially when they are large and have been longer established.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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