Wisdom & war stories from the trenches

Why Hire a Milkshake?

by Cooper Interaction Designers: Patrick Keenan and Nate Clinton

The most exciting trend we've seen in the business world has been an eagerness to rediscover customers as people with interests, habits, and complex lives. In the burgeoning startup world tools have been created to help with customer discovery, or product market fit. In the corporate world, executives are rolling up their sleeves, paying attention, and using design thinking. Even seasoned non-profits are going beyond awareness campaigns and seeking to understand their advocates’ behavior.

One of the seminal thinkers on this kind of discovery is Clayton Christensen. Here he recounts an incident showing how an insight was lost on the sharpest of marketers:

After watching the clip, it is clear that the fast food company was talking to their customers, but they were just asking the wrong questions. Bringing them into one-way mirrored rooms and asking them, "what can we do to make our milkshakes better?" wasn’t working. The hero of the story (the user researcher) is observing customers, collecting data and looking for patterns, not just asking questions.

What distinguishes the hero from the fast food company in the story is:

  1. He observes customers’ behavior in context, something the company didn't think to note
  2. He asked the customers questions about what they do and why, as opposed to asking about the milkshake.

This is a great illustration of an incredibly subtle point. In user research interviews, some companies are tempted to ask "what features do you want in this product?" rather than trying to understand what these customers are hiring the product to do.

The investigator in the story is able to grok which attributes are on the rise (viscosity) and which have reached their peak (chunkiness); something that's near impossible to get at by asking about feature directly. In the end, he knows why different consumers are hiring milkshakes and can move forward building more desirable products for them.

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