With a spiky pink mohawk she stands at 5ft 7". Wearing a short burberry skirt, army boots, and biker jacket; outfitted with the latest GPS system and night-vision lenses, she explores dramatic ruins of power stations, crumbling psychiatric hospitals, abandoned missile silos, and rusted subway systems. She ignores the no trespassing signs in other forbidden places. As an expert in the new extreme sport of urban exploration, she supplies maps and advice to a whole underground community of dedicated adventurers.
In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell writes about people with "expertise outside of the ordinary." While puzzling to the rest of us, he found these humans are not a one-off phenomena. Rather, expertise comes not only from talent, but also from practice, hard work, rehearsal, many hours of experience, and seizing opportunity.
Outliers can be thought of as extreme users. People ahead-of-the-curve who define trends, patterns and popular culture. When developing new products, they are vital for customer research, since they have a disproportionate influence on technology, fashion and social behavior.
Extreme users are found at opposite ends of the curve. On a bell curve it's the points located farthest from the middle. Here you'll find either lovers or haters of your products, or what the marketing gurus call "early adopters" or "brand rejectors" respectively.
But shouldn't we be talking to the mass market since this is where the money is? Well to understand a flock of sheep you want to talk to the shepherd.
Extreme users decode the world around them differently. They use technology in new ways and have different perspectives on reality. These people are often fanatical and go to greater lengths in habit, action or opinion, so acquire better knowledge about their areas of interest than most others. These consumers can articulate their needs more vividly, while the masses in the middle, with limited exposure to your products have trouble. By focusing customer research on extreme users you can then extract a richer source of information.
So next time you notice a guy with blond dreadlocks and ripped jeans, who's into freestyle motocross, kitesurfing, rock climbing, 2000ft cliff jumps into deep ravines, and body armor before breakfast, look past the painful scars. Because he's probably the perfect candidate for your research on high-definition cameras, outdoor apparel, social networking and emergency healthcare (of course).