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Part 1 of this three-part series examined the overall role the customer can and should play in innovation. We will now take a deeper look at five specific ways that Marketing can engage the customer in the innovation process, using examples from LEGO Group, a company that has used these techniques successfully.

1. Learn from your lead customers

Your lead customers (aka lead users) are those who creatively extend, enhance, or apply your product in ways you may not have imagined. As a group, they are an important source of innovation. At a minimum, you should identify who your lead customers are and stay in close contact so that you learn from them as they innovate. A more proactive approach is to recruit lead users and unleash their design potential.

When LEGO Group was designing Mindstorms NXT, the second-generation programmable brick intended for use in building robots, it hosted a two-day workshop at MIT with a group of end-users whose opinions they valued. The workshop produced numerous ideas and considerable feedback on initial design ideas. LEGO Group then developed a list of 20 top end-users, then hand-selected the top 5. This effort resulted in a panel of four lead users who helped design the Mindstorms NXT.

Dubbed the "Mindstorms User Panelists" (MUPs, or "Muppets"), the panel first provided its "wish list" of features and capabilities. As the design progressed, LEGO Group sent out specifications, then prototypes, for the panel's review and feedback.1

When two of the panelists attended a Mindstorms tournament at LEGO Group's headquarters, the Mindstorms team asked them to stay on for an extra day and proceeded to take them into the labs—the "inner sanctum" for research that was normally off limits to non-employees. Their observations in the lab resulted in additional design changes.2

This example illustrates the extent to which a company can reach out and engage its lead users. You may not have the resources to do everything LEGO Group did, of course, but you undoubtedly can take steps beyond passive observation.

2. Co-design with your customers

LEGO Group's recruiting of hand-picked lead users and involving them in all facets of the design is also a good example of including customers on your design team.

These lead users were selected based on their demonstrated ability to produce advanced designs with the first-generation Mindstorm product, and, as a group, they had complementary expertise. They were integrated into the design process by providing them with plans, preliminary specifications, and prototypes for review and comment. By being a select few (four), they were made to feel special and important. Giving them VIP treatment (e.g., taking two of the members into the "inner sanctum") provided further reinforcement.

Could you, as a marketing professional, be doing more to engage your customers in the design process? That can involve everything from championing the idea to your own design group (most internal design teams resist outsiders, due to a combination of time pressures, "NIH" (Not Invented Here) and secrecy concerns, to recruiting, selecting, and managing relationships with the selected customers.

3. Empower your customers to create their own designs

Customers often enjoy creating their own designs. Sometimes this is out of necessity—they have a problem or opportunity that cannot be addressed well with a standard "off the shelf" design—but often they simply enjoy the opportunity to employ their creativity to design something new. This latter market is the target for LEGO products. LEGO Group therefore provides tools that help users design products to their personal specifications.

The LEGO Factory is a system for designing with LEGO products. At the core is LEGO Digital Designer, a software tool that anyone can download from It enables the user to create elaborate virtual designs much more quickly than physical designs. It also enables the user to test different scenarios and perform "what if" tests before committing to a physical realization. Once the user is satisfied with the design, LEGO Digital Designer provides the information required to order the parts online.

Mindstorms is a system that enables construction and programming of working robots. Its core is the NXT programmable brick that contains an 8-bit processor, memory, and interfaces. To help children of all ages program the robot to perform the desired tasks, LEGO XNT Software provides a graphical user interface for customers of all skill levels, while NXT'reme is a firmware developer's kit for advanced users.

While LEGO products provide good examples, the concept of enabling the user community to design with your products is certainly not new. A generation ago (late 1970s/early1980s), long before "Customer-Centric Innovation" was a popular phrase, Apple Computer harnessed the power of its user community to design extensions for the Apple ][. It published detailed specifications for the software and hardware interfaces, and had active "developer" programs that provided technical, financial, and marketing support.

The result was hundreds of thousands of third-party software products and plug-in cards that addressed a variety of applications. It also resulted in greatly increased Apple ][ sales, since customers knew that whatever they might want to do with their computer, there probably were third-party products available to help them do it.

As a marketing person, you will want to encourage your product developers to design products that are extensible by the user community, and then promote this capability to your users and prospects.

4. Let customers "spread their wings"

When customers are encouraged to create, some will push beyond the intended limits. They can make modifications to the product itself or, at other times, extend the design tools; in both cases, they publicize their work to the user community and may offer their modifications to others. These changes are commonly referred to as "hacks," since they are outside the scope of vendor specifications.

It can be uncomfortable for a vendor to stand by as users "hack" its product, and it is easy to feel that you are losing control, that most "hackers" have evil motives, and that your intellectual property may be under attack. Be selective about intervening, however, since many of these "hacks" are well intentioned and they actually improve or extend the product to everyone's benefit—including yours.

LEGO Group encountered hackers on several occasions. When Lego Digital Designer was first released, several users noticed that it resulted in ordering many more bricks than were actually needed to build the design. One of the users made modifications to the software that enable customers to order smaller quantities (ultimately by unit rather than by the bag). The Lego Group recognized that the software modifications ultimately benefited customers, and it did not intervene.3

When Mindstorms was first launched, the lead users hacked the software to expose some of the proprietary APIs (application programming interfaces) and enable programmers to extend the software in ways LEGO Group never imagined. At first the attitude was wait-and-see, but eventually LEGO Group concluded that these hacks were resulting in creative new robot designs, furthering the original Mindstorms mission of encouraging exploration and ingenuity.

Marketing's role is to act as the customer champion and hold back lawyers who are overly zealous in defending your company's products—as long as the hacks are beneficial to the user community and don't result in the outright theft of intellectual or real property.

5. Help your customers gain recognition for their designs

Customers like to be recognized for their accomplishments. While contests with monetary prizes are certainly one way of providing such recognition, often the most motivating form is praise from peers. LEGO Group understands this well and provides forums for customers to submit their designs and vote on the designs of others.

The LEGO Factory enables a designer to upload his/her designs to, where they are then displayed in the Gallery, together with the name of and personal comments from the person who submitted them. (You can also order the components and instructions for the design if you wish to build it yourself.) Similarly, the Web site includes "NXTLog," a forum for showing off one's robotic creations. Going one step further, LEGO Group also sponsors design contests with prizes.

The user community itself is taking the lead in providing recognition. There are numerous independent sites for displaying one's designs and judging the work of others. Several contests and conventions are organized by independent groups, such as FIRST LEGO League and BrickFest.

* * *

While the responsibility for several of these five areas of customer engagement fall naturally into the marketing department (e.g., promoting customer design tools and the customer designs themselves), others may require Marketing to exercise initiative (e.g., engaging lead customers in the design process).

By taking a leadership role in the five areas above, Marketing can become instrumental in increasing the level of innovation at your company.

In Part 3 of this series, we'll explore this topic further.


1 Patricia Seybold, Outside Innovation, Collins, 2006

2 Brendan I. Koerner, "Geeks in Toyland," Wired (February 2006)

3 Daniel Terdiman, "Hacking's a Snap in Legoland," CNET News (September 15, 2005)

As noted earlier, we are interested in learning more about the role of marketing in your company and have a short survey (approximately 20 questions) that should take less than 10 minutes to fill out. Please click here to access the survey. In return for your time, you will have access to the executive summary of the study when it is available. Premium subscribers will have access to the full report.

Continue reading "Five More Keys to Engaging the Customer to Produce Real Innovation: Lessons From LEGO (Part 2 of 3)" ... Read the full article

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Leland D. Shaeffer is Managing Director or PLM Associates ( Reach him at

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