Applying the milkshake theory


In last month’s column I sounded off at a few of the crackpot ideas going around at the moment, like connected television. The point, if there was one, was that we seem to be overloaded at the moment with new technologies that exist solely for one of two reasons: that a bunch of engineers found they could do it, and/or a big manufacturer thought they could put a new logo on a product and bump the price up.
If you will indulge me, it is a theme to which I would like to return.
At the beginning of February, for rather dull reasons which need not concern us here, I travelled to Boston in a particularly cold snap to hear a man called Clayton M Christensen talk. He is a professor at the Harvard Business School, and has also written some of the better offerings in the business section of the airport bookshop, which we all rush past on our way to the Dan Browns.
The premise of his talk, he stated at the beginning, was “why is innovation such a crap shoot?” One of the reasons, he went on to suggest, was that people innovate in a vacuum rather than determining what people actually need. He told a fascinating story to illustrate this.
It appears that “a leading fast food chain in America” (he later let slip that it was McDonalds) wanted to increase the sales of its milkshakes. It did what would appear to be the right thing: it identified milkshake lovers and formed a focus group. The focus group debated what would make a better milkshake, and McDonalds took many of these ideas on board.
The new improved milkshake was launched. And made absolutely no measurable difference to sales.
It was at this point that Christensen was called in. Pause for a moment while we realign our prejudices: not only does McDonalds do serious research into product development, it engages Harvard professors, at a consultancy rate I can only dream of, to do it.
Rather than look at the product, Christensen looked at the customers. He did some raw research on why people bought a milkshake.
It turned out that more than 50% of milkshake sales were to lone customers, who bought nothing other than the milkshake, and bought it first thing in the morning. This seemed to him, as it did to me, completely counter-intuitive. Surely you buy the milkshake to take away the taste of the burger that you bought late at night when you thought you ought to eat something?
So he dug into the reason for buying. It turned out that these lone, early morning purchasers had a long and boring commute to work and they primarily needed something to occupy them on the journey, with a secondary requirement that it be (more or less) nutritious, or at least fill them up.
An apple would have been an alternative, but would not have lasted as long. An Egg McMuffin would have filled the time but is less convenient to eat while driving, and highly likely to leave an embarrassing stain down the front of the shirt. The competition for the McDonalds milkshake was not, then, a technically superior milkshake developed by a rival vendor, but seemingly different products: bagels, chocolate bars, bananas and so on.
Christensen drew two conclusions from this. First, there is a point where technology develops beyond what the user needs and can use. In this case the original milkshake formulation was perfectly good enough and did not need further development.
To put it in our terms, if you are as old as I am you will remember having to pause regularly when typing on early personal computers to wait for the processor to catch up. Today’s computers have already developed way beyond what we need them to do (the machine on which I am typing this has eight processors each running at 2.8GHz – not even I type that fast). And yet Mr Intel continues to create ever faster processors running in ever smaller packages for ever more powerful desktops and laptops.
The second conclusion is that before you can develop a product, you have to know what the user wants it for. He talked about “the job to be done”. In his example, the job to be done was not to titillate the tastebuds with the finest milkshake the world has ever known, but to give the commuter something to do with his or her hands when stuck in traffic, which would incidentally also stave off the pangs of hunger until lunchtime.
Exhibition season is upon us. I have already tramped the halls of Cabsat and BVE, and will soon be packing my bag to head off to NAB. I am sure many of you will be there, too. As you are pulled onto stand after stand by excited exhibitors claiming that their product is new and revolutionary, just ask yourself if it will genuinely help you get your job done.
Or are they just trying to improve a milkshake?

Tags: iss051 | milkshake | food chain | product development | cabsat | bve. nab | ibc | exhibition season | N/A
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