New product development (NPD) presents a number of challenges to engineering teams designing for the base of the economic pyramid (BoP). Existing design methods may not be appropriate for the unique operating context. In response to these differences, product design teams and researchers have turned to participatory design as an approach to designing with people in emerging communities to address the main failure mode identified in past BoP projects, namely the misidentification of user needs. Past research and experience has demonstrated that identifying users to engage in participatory co-design is challenging and effectively selecting the right user is critical for a successful project. This study examines whether Urban and Von Hippel’s Lead User Theory could be effective in NPD processes for BoP markets. This work explores extending Lead User Theory to participatory co-design projects in a BoP context using a case study of an improved cook stove design in Gujarat, India. A comparison of themes drawn from qualitative analysis of stakeholder interviews to Von Hippel’s Lead User Theory illustrates possible changes to the lead user concept to account for the BoP context. Results suggest that being “ahead of trend” is not critical to participatory co-design success. An extended model which includes an expanded definition of expected benefit, design communication skills, and access to user preferences through a social network could help identify “lead users” for participatory co-design projects in BoP contexts.

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