Thick Data in Product Development: The Go-Gurt Case

Thick Data refers to all those data obtained in an immersive/ethnographic way aiming at revealing the cultural, social and emotional contexts of one or several study groups. Thick Data-based studies have proven their enormous effectiveness when it comes to deepening the reality of users, their social and symbolic organization, their daily (or contextual) use of products, their unmet needs, their identity polyhedra or their innate contradiction between their thoughts, their actions and their supposed actions.

Thick Data provides immense added value to all innovation processes undertaken by companies and public organizations. Its remarkably useful in issues related to product development, user-centered design, organizational management, market research, participatory processes and other initiatives that require a deep understanding by the agents involved.

One of the best-known successful cases in relation to added value that Thick Data provides in product development is the Go-Gurt case, a product marketed by the food multinational Yoplait. The interesting thing about this example is that it reveals the real and situated knowledge generated by ethnographic techniques above other traditional qualitative research methods such as the focus groups. The Yoplait case illustrates how participant observation was a key factor in obtaining insights that would allow to create a product really focused on people’s needs, setting a milestone in the company’s sales.

thick data gogurt

The Go-Gurt Case

It all started when the Yoplait multinational requested the anthropologist Susan Squires an investigation on the main motivations of mothers when buying one product or the other for their children’s breakfast.

To address this question, a two-phase study was proposed. First, a focus group was held in which a representative selection of mothers responsible for family feeding participated. After this focus group, some of the participants were selected to carry out a situated action study, that is, “the observation on the consumer made before, during and after the use of a product” (López, 2017: 127). To do this, there would be interaction with the subjects in the particular consumption contexts, such as at breakfast time.

During the focus group, mothers were asked what they valued the most in their children’s breakfast. Their answers should not surprise us: all mothers insisted that the most important thing was, hands down, that it was healthy.

“I only feed my kids whole grain, nutritious food. It gives them a good start to the day. I know Kevin does better on his tests when I make sure he’s a good breakfast”

Let’s picture this: a large number of mothers inside a room discussing about feeding their children. Obviously, the unanimous speech was that for them the health of their children was FIRST. And it was very like to be so. But it is important to understand that those mothers were in a context where they not only interacted with the researcher, but with all their peers’ social environment, that is, the other mothers. And under such circumstances, no mother wants to be branded as a “bad mother,” one of the strongest existing gender taboos. The discourse that originated there arose from a collective imagination about what to be a “good mother” meant, and not so much about the particular contexts of each of them. This modification of behavioral and discursive aspects due to the fact of being observed is known as “Hawthorne Effect”.

Once the focus group phase was over, what Squires herself defined as a situated action was carried out.

At 6.30 in the morning, the anthropologist and her partner Tom (designer) visited one of the participants to share with their family the reality of their breakfasts, thus testing the speeches obtained in the focus group.

And they found out that this reality was different to what they had been told …

Although the mother tried to show the researchers how she gave her children bowls with yogurt and chopped fruit (again Hawthorne effect), the children did not eat. The truth is that 6.30 in the morning was a too early hour for them to be hungry. Not even the absent husband, who had already left for work, seemed to have breakfast in the house:

“My husband left just before you got here. He never eats breakfast. I think he grabs something at a 7-11 later on. But I make sure the kids eat. Jack, get in here and eat your waffle.”

At that point of the situated action, Squires could see that despite the insistence and good wishes of the mother to give her children (Jack and Kevin) a healthy breakfast, the reality of the routine played against her. As a working woman, she had to hurry to take her children to school and go to work, besides taking the daily call of his mother-in-law, who promptly asked if her grandchildren had had breakfast conveniently. During the whole scene, the unappetizing Jack and Kevin had fun watching the children’s drawings and playing with cereals that in contact with the milk turned blue. Finally, despite the mother’s incessant efforts, the children left the house without eating anything.

The researcher decided to continue with the situated action during Jack’s school routine and found out that at 10.00 in the morning the child was hungry, forcing him to open his lunch box reserved for midday and peck between meals, halfway through the class. Also, Jack’s father used to stop around 7:00 in the morning for a coffee and a banana on his way to work. All the members of the family had developed daily strategies for breakfast outside their home.

Yoplait understood that this head-on collision between what the mothers ideally wanted and the reality of their lives could be a clear market opportunity. The Squires’ study had revealed not only what values each family member gave to breakfast (mother, healthy, children, fun) but also the very limiting factors that prevented seeing those desires reached. In the America of the working woman, there was no time for breakfast and the biology of the children did not help the new super-accelerated pace of their parents.

Therefore, Yoplait decided to develop a product adapted to the needs of the hurried hypermodern societies, aligned with the values of mothers and children:

The Go-Gurt.

Go-Gurt is a yogurt tube that stands out for its easy portability. It is designed to be consumed without a spoon in almost any context. Its design incorporates cartoons (aligned with children’s values) and is available in various fruit flavors (aligned with mothers’ values). this new product could be the breakfast that children could take to school and eat it at any time and the mothers felt that they were contributing a healthy diet to their children. Its easy portability challenged the traditional spaces for breakfast consumption (own house), which facilitated the morning routine of the mothers (buyers of the product). Go-Gurt was designed to be a healthy and fun breakfast adapted to the realities of American homes.

And, indeed, it was. In its first year of launch, Go-Gurt obtained 37 million dollars in sales and it is still today a popular breakfast in countries like the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia or Japan.

The Thick Data Value in Product Development

The Go-Gurt development illustrates the importance of the situated data when creating a user-centered product. The study by Susan Squires allowed to go deeper into the testimonies of the mothers during the focus group, a discourse aimed at adhering to a collective imagination about the construction of the “mother” identity of and that had it been taken strictly speaking, it would have originated another product strictly focused on satisfying this imagination.

The Thick Data approach allowed getting first-hand knowledge of the contextual reality of the studied phenomenon and in the right places. That is, the routines, the morning stress, the unappetizing children in front of the television or the fun that caused them to see how the milk was dyed blue. This reality clashed head-on with the “good mother” imagination, exclusively focused on giving a healthy breakfast to children but without expressing the daily routine that made this goal difficult.

The situated action of the Thick Data itself managed to obtain a holistic view of the context on the studied phenomenon (children’s breakfasts), paying attention to the speeches and actions of all the agents involved. Obtaining insights (or undisclosed truths) was key for the subsequent development of the product, fully adapted to the contextual needs of the agents involved, which led to a commercial success for the company.

In Anthropología 2.0 we carry out Thick Data studies that allow the development of products really focused on the needs of users. You can learn more about our services here.

For further information:

López, S. (2017) Antropología de la empresa, ed. Bellaterra, Barcelona

NAPA- National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (2002) American Breakfast & The mother in law: How an anthropologist created Go-Gurt, Practicing Anthropology.
Available at: http://practicinganthropology.org/american-breakfast-the-mother-in-law-how-an-anthropologist-created-go-gurt/

Squires, S. y Byrne, B. (2002) Creating breakthrough ideas: The collaboration of anthropologists and designers in the product development industry, Bergin & Bargey, Westport


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