The importance of asking ‘why’

My friend Tim Kourdi brought my attention to this presentation by Professor Clayton Christensen about a market research study done with milkshake consumers:

If you abstract from the presentation’s background and the fact that he keeps describing the act of buying food items as ‘hiring’ ***seriously, what’s going on there?*** this is, actually, a neat example of the importance of asking ‘WHY’ in market research.

Market Research questions

In the video, Clayton describes how the market research team started by focusing on what people bought. The answers led to lots of tinkering with the product but no significant impact on sales.

Next, the market research focused on how. It investigated things such as who buys the milkshakes, at what time, what customers wear, whether they are alone or accompanied, if they buy other products, and so on. The answers led to the insight that nearly 50% of the milkshakes were sold before 8 o’clock in the morning.

Then, the team moved on to studying the why. Through this, the team realised that customers were choosing an item of food that would sustain them through the long morning at work, and which was easy and simple to use.

It was this question that delivered the valuable insight to the company. Don’t get me wrong: the others questions were important, too. For instance, the realisation that most purchases were made by commuters before 8am (i.e., the ‘how’) helped focus the rest of the research. Equally, we need to understand how preferences (i.e., the ‘what’) vary, for instance, across particular neighbourhoods or time of the year. But, ultimately, people buy products because they serve some function. Asking ‘why’ helps us identify that function.

Now, in Clayton Christensen’s style, what food do you ‘hire’ in the morning? My most effective ‘hire’ is oats.

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