The role of ethnography in the success of Starbucks

I realise it will ruin some of my coffee street cred to say something positive about Starbucks. However, their use of ethnographic research outlined in Maria O’Connell’s Not Just Coffee: Starbucks’ Rise to Success is commendable (and clearly successful):

Starbucks interviewed hundreds of coffee drinkers, seeking what it was that they wanted from a coffee shop. The overwhelming consensus actually had nothing to do with coffee; what consumers sought was a place of relaxation, a place of belonging. They sought an atmosphere.

The round tables in a Starbucks store were strategically created in an effort to protect self-esteem for those coffee-drinkers flying solo. After all, there are no “empty” seats at a round table. Service counters are built out of natural materials like warm woods and stone, rather than plastics and metals, to create a homier atmosphere.

It’s still so frustrating to see how many companies embark on their redesigns or MVPs without doing contextual research first. You might get the usability of your product right, but without utility, it will still be useless. As Milica T. Jovanovic points out in Better safe than sorry:

Startup culture is using a bunch of clichés to tell (mostly) young people that it’s ok to invest an enormous amount of time and energy into something and then let it fail. Well, it’s not ok. It’s bollocks. There is nothing wrong in investing your time and effort into something you are passionate about, but you can make sure that the risk of failure is as small as possible.

In short, do your research first!

Related reading from the Elezea archive: Coffee, sense of place, and designing whole experiences