Behavioral innovation: Dr. Christiana von Hippel introduces new concept and big data analysis methods in special issue of Research Policy

By Sarah Han | This article was originally published on the Wallace Center website.

A picture of Dr. Christiana von Hippel, ScD, MPH

Dr. Christiana von Hippel was a postdoctoral fellow with the Wallace Center in partnership with the Center of Excellence in Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health from 2018-2020. Dr. von Hippel’s research focuses on how diverse communities of women innovate to solve sexual and reproductive health problems, when interventions designed by health professionals are inaccessible or insufficient to meet their needs.

A new study led by Dr. Christiana von Hippel, ScD, MPH (former Wallace Center postdoctoral fellow from 2018-2020) introduces the new concept of behavioral innovation and natural language processing methods to find innovations in big data. Behavioral innovation happens when ordinary people, or “users,” faced with problems in daily life invent new techniques or strategies to meet their own needs. Published (with free access) in a special issue of Research Policy this month, the study used novel big data analysis methods to mine and analyze posts on subreddits, or community discussion forums on the social media platform Reddit.

When we think of innovation, most often what comes to mind is product innovation from professional research and development rather than users’ own experimentation. Product innovation can be easier to recognize because there is physical evidence (i.e. prototypes) of the innovation itself. Behavioral innovations are more difficult to examine because they exist only in the way a user tackles a problem. While behavioral innovations can greatly improve quality of life and solve day-to-day problems, researchers have found that users often do not recognize or recall in detail their own behavioral innovations, making it challenging to study using conventional data collection through surveys or interviews.

This is where big data comes in: Researchers can identify user innovations at scale by mining user-generated content revealed openly online in large peer-to-peer discussion forums. In other words, rather than surveying individuals one-by-one, researchers can use publicly available data posted on forums like Reddit, Twitter, or Facebook where millions of people post about their experiences, needs, and solutions as they are happening. Dr. von Hippel employed natural language processing methods to filter millions of comments from two subreddits, r/BeyondTheBump and r/Parenting and elevate user innovations with fascinating results.

The vast majority of the innovations found in these threads were behavioral innovations as opposed to product innovations. Most of them were developed and shared by women, which counters previous literature that claims male users are more likely to innovate. The behavioral innovations Dr. von Hippel found addressed problems like baby-proofing the home, breastfeeding, pumping and bottle feeding, diapering, sleep training, and postpartum pain relief for the mother. Users were able to modify or develop new techniques and strategies to solve unmet health or childcare needs and conserve valuable resources of time, energy, and money. These behavioral innovations can provide companies with insights on how consumers use or modify their current products as well as inspiration for new products that better meet consumer needs. Dr. von Hippel and her co-author Andrew Cann also found that users most often posted about their innovations in response to threads that started with a specific problem or need rather than a general request for advice from peers, providing insight into how users are prompted to share their techniques and strategies with each other.

Not only does this study propose a new typology of innovation, it also applies innovative data collection and analysis methods. This novel conceptual and methodological approach advances the field of innovation by helping researchers discover new user-developed innovations at scale, understand who innovates and why, as well as how these innovations are shared from user to user. Findings from studies like these can be leveraged to inform policy initiatives that promote user innovation, such as subsidizing Makerspaces in hospitals and other offline and online community contexts where users can access shared tools and social support for innovation.

These contributions can be applied beyond parenting and other household issues. For example, during Dr. von Hippel’s fellowship with the Wallace Center, she collaborated with Dr. Cassondra Marshall to apply the same big data analysis methods to online communities where women discuss birth control and share their innovative behavioral strategies to cope with contraceptive side effects. Dr. Marshall presented their preliminary findings at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association last year and is continuing to explore these methods for family planning and reproductive research, building upon previous research exploring patients as innovators in their own health journey.