At its core, Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) is concerned with the accurate translation of what the customer wants into measurable characteristics, and then putting these characteristics into functions and design elements. The idea behind DFSS is intuitive and simple. If done well, a company will end up with a product that has what the customer wants and needs exactly at the point of product launch.

The least technical, but perhaps the most challenging part, of DFSS is the accurate understanding of the voice of the customer (VOC). How well the company can gather and understand the customer’s wants and needs is critical. Good VOC and the company has a market winning product; bad VOC and that product is likely to be a dud that nobody wants.

But the issue can actually be more complex than that. Does the average customer always know what they really want? After all, prior to their widespread appearance, what consumer even dreamed of asking for the Internet, ATMs, the cell phone, instant photography, contact lenses? How can a company get the voice of the customer for these kinds of never-before-seen products?

There is a similar problem with familiar products. It can be argued that the more familiar a customer is with an existing product type, the less likely the average customer can foresee the future of that product. For example, before Apple introduced the now-standard “windows-style” operating system (which was actually developed by Parc Xerox), it would be hard to imagine a focus group comprised of DOS users asking for the computer operating system features taken for granted today. More likely, the average DOS users would just ask for enhancements and refinements to their existing DOS system.

Considering the Lead User Theory

But not all consumers are average consumers, some are “lead users.” According to Eric von Hippel, professor and head of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lead users are consumers who have some especially strong needs right now. They have two defining characteristics:

  • Lead users face needs that eventually will be in the marketplace – but face them months or years before the bulk of consumers.
  • Lead users are positioned to benefit significantly by obtaining a solution to those needs.

If lead users can be systematically identified and accurately tapped for their “voice” and their “concepts,” it would be invaluable in implementing the DFSS methodology. It would allow companies to design products today that will meet the needs of the marketplace at the point of product launch, i.e., one to two years later.

Lead user theory as an input into the DFSS methodology is particularly important at this point in the history of product development because most of the exciting developments are in high-tech product design. In high technology, where speed of innovation is so fast, the average customer’s current experience and derived needs are often obsolete by the time the product is developed. This was the case with the high-end typewriters that appeared around the same time as personal computers in the early 1980s. The high-end typewriters, which had functions very similar to the word processing software available then, were no doubt the product of diligent market research and voice-of-the-customer analysis. Nevertheless, they became almost obsolete upon arrival because neither their customers nor the companies that produced them foresaw the widespread adoption of the PC and the eventual demise of the typewriter.

Incorporating Lead User Data into DFSS

How can lead users be identified, and how can their insights, needs and expectations be used in DFSS projects? Based on Von Hippel’s research, here are four suggested steps for finding and using lead users:

1. Identify the important trends within the product area. Since lead users are ahead of the general market with respect to one or more variables that will change over time, it is important to know the variables. In other words, what is the underlying trend on which these users are ahead of the curve relative to the general population? As an example, a relevant trend in a DFSS project for the next generation of mobile phones is globalization (the mother of all trends). Tapping into the global economy is no longer just the activity of large multinational corporations. It has become almost everyone’s business and leads to more people bringing their mobile phones outside of their subscribed networks. International business travel is no longer the exclusive domain of high-level executives who have no concern about racking up huge mobile phone bills on company expense. Today, global business travelers and their companies are concerned about the high cost of global roaming service.

2. Identify lead users. Once the trends have been identified, the next step is to identify the users or customers who are ahead of this trend. In the mobile phone example, lead users may be among the frequent business travelers who do not have large company expense accounts. These lead users often limit their business activities to no more than three markets. For instance, many North American, European and Asian business executives spend time in China.

3. Obtain the lead users’ needs, wants, expectations and current solutions to the problem. In the example, lead users want to tap into the cheaper local networks for local business calls rather than to use their global roaming service for a local call. It is important to ask these lead users how they solve their problem. It is common for these lead users to subscribe with a local network provider in their destination country and swap SIM cards for less expensive local calls upon their arrival.

4. If possible, obtain the function and design element expectations of these lead users. In the example, an obvious design element is to have a mobile phone that has more than one SIM card slot. That could, with the right operating system on board, allow the user to switch from one SIM card to another. This kind of function also is useful for another kind of lead user – the high volume text message user. It is common for some mobile phone service providers to offer a certain volume of free text messaging with a basic plan. Many young people try to save on communication cost by using their mobile phone for text messaging most of the time. Some have found it cheaper to have more than one plan (hence two SIM cards) than to exceed their allocated free text messaging on just one plan. A mobile phone with more than one SIM card slotalso could meet the needs of these lead users.

Conclusion: Getting to Market on Time

It is evident that successful DFSS, especially in the area of high-tech products, can be helped significantly by incorporating the lead user theory to develop products that arrive in the marketplace just in time to meet new needs.

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