I consulted for McDonalds as a student. Here’s what it was like.

POV: You’re a 3rd year at Rotman Commerce, focusing in management. Over the past few years, you’ve become interested in marketing, consulting, and innovation.

Lucky for you, you have a superpower and can look into the future. You’ve heard of RSM459 (Business Design), but are unsure whether to enrol. So, you decide to fast forward time and preview the course experience.

What you see is a flash of different business design moments — with Step 2: Finding (customer needs, problems, and insights) being the most enjoyable and rich in learning value. In fact, the following are your personal highlights:

#1 Observational Research — “The Sponge”

McDonalds Location on Bloor St

At this stage, your group has simply defined your target audience as “18–25 year old students + working professionals with weak/no fast food brand preference.” In other words, you have a very surface-level target, but know NOTHING about their routine lives, habits, purchase criteria and goals, or brand perceptions….You know, the important consumer behaviour stuff. At the moment, you also don’t know WHAT other information is needed to find relevant insights.

Thankfully, Prof Nachshen introduces you to qualitative research tools like direct observation and the POEMS framework. So when you’re walking back from class to the McDonalds location on Bloor, you have an idea on important categories to focus on: People, Objects, Environments, Messages, and Services. With a slight focus on people (consumers), your goal is to absorb information about their current mood, hobbies/interests, actions, branded products, clothes, interpersonal dynamics, and any other visible or audible factors you can collect.

With your laptop and Raisa_Data_Capture Excel sheet open, you start taking notes on different consumers. The most difficult part of this process is not the observation itself, but appearing natural! At first, collecting POEMS on each consumer seems to require lots observation time and repeat glances. Even when you focus on your computer and at the general scenery — at some point, consumers start to notice your attention and give strange looks or stare back at you.

After a few awkward tries, you start to learn a new process: taking a general photo of the restaurant with multiple consumers in it, writing down detailed notes about them, then deleting the photo after. And there you have it, professional-grade notes without the awkwardness. Who knew observation was an advanced skill that requires lots of practice!

#2 Insight Finding — “The Curious Child” & “The Empath”

At the next RSM459 class, you watch a video about empathy interviews and learn techniques to comfort/de-arm participants, ask insightful questions, and meaningful followups. To help guide the types of questions to ask, you’re exposed to the 5E’s of Need-Finding:

  • Entice — why are they interested in the brand and/or product?
  • Enter — what motivates / prevents them to start engaging with the brand?
  • Engage — how do they interact with the brand & what is their experience?
  • Exit — what is the end of their brand interaction like?
  • Extend — what triggers them to repeat the process again?

Right away, you have 5 key questions to help identify the weakest stage of the McDonalds ordering experience. To facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of the problem, your team then develops a new acronym that summarizes additional lecture learnings: CHUGEPS:

  • Criteria: What criteria do they consider when deciding where to eat?
  • Habits: In what frequency do they order fast food? In what settings?
  • Uses: How do they go about ordering fast food? Do they use apps?
  • Gaps: What functions do they wish food ordering/loyalty apps had?
  • Emotions: What emotions do they associate with McDonalds/loyalty apps
  • Philosophy: What is their overall position on fast food and loyalty apps?
  • Stories: What stories/memories stand out when they think of McDonalds?

With the 5Es and CHUGEPS, you feel fully equipped to have 30+ min, comprehensive interviews with people at McDonalds and collect lots of useful customer information.

However, when you practice conducting empathy interviews with your classmates (even with prompt ideas on the whiteboard), you soon realize that you’re not even close to ready…

Your partner for the class exercise answers some of your questions vaguely and shortly, so you end up having trouble finding a relevant followup and move to the next question. In other words, you’ve done your homework, but are still unprepared to handle conversation curveballs and dead ends. In fact, you notice that these situations are common and often occur when the interviewee is shy/reserved or does not relate deeply to a specific question.

Empathy Interviews, Recorded on iPhone

To overcome these challenges, your group discovers the power of probing phases and how they can be used to add conversational flexibility and to encourage more detailed responses. Using Prof Prof Nachshen’s Interview Fieldguide, you identify different categories of probing phrases:

  • Direct — Can you tell me more about X? What was the context?
  • Specific — Who, What, When, Where, Why, How?
  • Creative — What would you compare the experience to?(metaphor/simile)
  • Empathetic — How did X make you feel? Would you do X again?

On a higher level, you also find educated empathy (personal experience + psychological theories) to be a great source of conversation pivots and catalysts. In particular, Maslow’s Hierarchy helps your team move away from obvious questions around physical needs to more insightful ones that tap into connection, independence, creativity, love, accomplishment, and fulfillment.

Between the 5E’s of Need Finding, CHUGEPS, Probing, and Maslow’s Hierarchy at your disposal, you now are able to convert observation into interpretation, and small talk into novel interview insights. Overall, these frameworks have provided credible ways for your team to create, validate, and fully understand qualitative consumer data — ie, the foundations for prototype solutions!

Wow — that was a lot of time traveling and hands-on learning. After seeing a few key highlights of the course, you’re even more eager to get involved. With new consumer research tools, you can now uncover and understand the forces behind consumer decisions unlike ever before. More importantly, you can apply these learnings in the workplace to reinvent / develop new products and processes (which is for lack of better words, the closest thing to a Disney World for creative nerds.)

Even though you still have lots to learn about business design, there is one thing that’s certain: RSM459 is a rigorous and ambiguous intellectual journey… which is 1,000% worth taking.

Story by Raisa Jarostchuk



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