Living innovation laboratories—or living labs, for short—have joined the arsenal of research methods being used by hotels and hotel brands to study new hotel concepts. For example, consider these hotel living laboratories:

Hilton Worldwide maintains a separate wing at the Hilton Garden Inn LAX where the company invites hotel guests to stay in, and provide feedback on, its next-generation guestrooms.

Marriott International uses hotels to research new designs, such as a new lobby for Marriott’s Courtyard brand, which was tested at the Courtyard in Fair Oaks, Virginia.

The Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara, California is testing a new booth for soundproof teleconferencing.

The La Quinta Hotel in Irving, Texas experimented with different ways of laying out their breakfast foods to make it easier for guests to find what they want.

 So what is it that distinguishes a living lab from other sorts of laboratories? The primary distinction has to do with the difference between “real” and “artificial.” In living labs, customers and concepts are studied in real, live environments, whereas traditional laboratories study things in artificially-constructed settings. For example, the Hilton Garden Inn LAX obtains feedback from customers who have stayed overnight in one of their test guestrooms—a living lab. Compare this to the practice of obtaining customer feedback on a model room constructed in a warehouse—an artificial lab.

Why use a living lab rather than an artificial one? A good way to answer this question is to ask you to imagine yourself as the “guinea pig” in each of the foregoing settings. In the first case, you stay overnight in a test guestroom at the Hilton Garden Inn LAX. In the second case, you spend time touring a model room in a warehouse. Now answer this. In which case do you think you would be able to provide more—and more insightful—advice?

And insightful advice is what it’s all about. Living labs have become an effective instrument in a new paradigm that is variously referred to as open innovation or co-innovation. The co-innovation paradigm includes the practice of obtaining insightful advice from users during all phases of the innovation process, which is to say during initial research, concept development and implementation.

The co-innovation paradigm may also involve suppliers and other stakeholders in the innovation process. Here, again, I’ll ask you to use your imagination in order to understand how a supplier—and you, in turn—would benefit from a living lab. Imagine you are the supplier of some sort of furniture, fixture or equipment that is used in a guestroom. Do you think you would benefit more from studying guests in a “living” guestroom in a hotel or in a “dead” model room in a warehouse?

Living labs can be far more extensive than just a guestroom or lobby. In Europe, where the concept is being applied with vigor, there are hundreds of applications, including making living labs of homes, retail establishments, museums, theaters, airports, farms, fishing villages, streets, industrial districts, neighborhoods, and even an entire city of 60,000 people.

Implementing the living lab concept can be as simple as defining the boundaries of the lab and using the “try something out and see what happens” method of experimentation. But if you want to get the most research return for your dollar, you’ll need to take a more sophisticated approach, one that includes:

-establishing the research question or hypothesis,

-defining the unit of analysis and method of measurement,

-designing an experiment to answer the question or prove the hypothesis,

-implementing the experiment using disciplined research methods, such as the observation and interview protocols that are used by ethnographers, and

-interpreting the results.

There are also “meta-issues” to consider, like recruiting users, contracting with them, and getting and keeping them engaged. And with larger labs, like mixed-use projects and neighborhoods, you’ll need to consider such issues as the planning, governance and support structures that are necessary to coordinate multiple researchers.

Are living labs worth the effort? The hotel brands appear to think so. Perhaps it’s time you think about them too.