Milkshake mistakes

Milkshake mistakes

I am still in the process of reading this book “Cognitive Surplus” by Clay Shirky. There is one case example Clay highlighted that I really like it very much.

When McDonald’s wanted to improve their milkshakes sales, they hire researchers to figure out what characteristics the customers cared about. Whether the milkshakes should be thicker? sweeter? colder?  Almost all the researchers focused on the product except for Gerald Berstell who choose to ignore the shakes and study the customers instead.

Gerald Berstell sat in at McDonalds for 18 hours one day to observe those who bought the milkshakes and at what time. One surprising discovery was that many milkshakes were purchased early in the day – odd, as consuming a shake at 8am plainly does not fit the bacon-and-eggs model of breakfast. He made another discovery about the milkshake crowd : the buyers were always alone, they rarely bought anything besides a shake and they never consumed the shakes in the store.

The breakfast-shake drinkers were clearly commuters, intending to drink them while driving to work. This behavior was readily apparent, but the other researchers had missed it because it didn’t fit the normal way of thinking about either milkshakes or breakfast.

So if you want to eat while you are driving, you need something you can eat with one hand. It must not be too hot, too messy or too greasy. It should also be moderately tasty and take a while to finish. Not one conventional breakfast item fits the bill, so these customers were taking the milkshakes for a fast breakfast.


All the researchers except Berstell made two kinds of mistakes, mistakes we call “milkshake mistakes”

1. Mistake 1 : Too much focus on the product and assume that everything important about it was somehow implicit in its attributes with no regards to the role the customers wanted.

2. Mistake 2 : Adopt a narrow view of the the type of food people have always eaten in the morning, as if all habits were deeply rooted traditions intead of accumulated accidents.


The main moral of the story is that we shouldn’t take too narrow or too focused on the tools itself. It is important to consider the point of view from the people who are using the tools.



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