You Are Not Your User: What Ketchup Can Tell Us About the Importance of Research

by Syrup | Feb 1, 2022

Mark Twain said it best: Supposing is good, but finding out is better.

One of the biggest mistakes a brand can make is creating a product or service without first conducting the proper research with users who will ultimately be using the end product or service. If you’re not asking stakeholders questions first-hand or reviewing user behavior via contextual inquiry or third party analytics tools, you’re really just… making up solutions based on assumptions. And that’s where so many companies go wrong.

Take Heinz for example — yes, ketchup has entered the conversation. I know, stay with me, I have a point. Heinz is known for their iconic glass bottles with the ’57’ embossed on the side that sat on diner tabletops and restaurants throughout the globe for decades. In the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, however, as grocery stores became more inclusive of different types of cuisines and began stocking their shelves with a wider variety of condiments than just your American basics, Heinz began to see sales slump: Were consumers just tired of ketchup? Were they branching out into these other cuisines and trying other condiments that were now more readily available? Or did Heinz need to take a look at their formula and tweak the recipe?

Here’s where Heinz made a crucial decision. Rather than making assumptions on what needed to be changed or addressed or tested, Heinz decided to take the first step in any smart business decision: survey its consumers.

Heinz began interviewing consumers about how they use ketchup within their homes. And what they determined was that the slump in sales wasn’t related to a problem with the product or recipe or other condiments at all — it was the bottle’s packaging.

When I first mentioned the iconic glass Heinz bottle, frustration was probably one of the first things you felt. We’ve all been there — our arms getting tired from beating the side of the glass bottle repeatedly (“Hit it right on the 57!” my grandmother would say), just hoping to get a good-sized glob out onto our burger or plate of fries… only to suddenly have a tsunami of ketchup spill all over the food or table all at once.

You see, a large consumer base for Heinz has always been families, specifically because of children. Through user research, Heinz learned the glass bottles weren’t really family or kid friendly in the house: from tiny hands accidentally dropping and shattering glass bottles on the floor to the aforementioned ketchup-drowning-your-food scenario, Heinz determined from its conversations with users that the packaging was causing a very poor user experience within the homes of customers, and therefore they weren’t buying as much ketchup — that’s how big of a pain the glass bottles were for families. Heinz realized they needed to make a substantial change to the ketchup bottles in order for them to become more usable within homes, and hoped that this would in turn lead to increased grocery store sales.

And so, the birth of the plastic, more ergonomic, and kid-friendly squeezable bottle of ketchup was born. It’s since had many iterations (as any good product or design will!), and eventually turned into the gravity-fed bottle we all know and love today.

But for a second, imagine if Heinz had just assumed it was a formula issue based on the data they saw and began messing with their classic ketchup recipe. Imagine if the company then spent millions of dollars on redistributing a new recipe (still in those glass bottles!) to grocery stores all across the globe, just to continue having the same problem. That’s where user research can pay off substantially — taking the time to figure out the actual issue or need rather than the assumed issue or need can save your company a ton of money, effort, time, headaches, etc. in the long run.

The importance of actually asking end-users about what they need or want out of a product or service is critical.

When surveys and first-party conversations become paired with data tools like Google Analytics, Hotjar heatmaps, and more, you will learn about the user behavior of your consumers to help make more informed decisions for your company or brand.

So. Leave your assumptions or what you as a business owner or manager selfishly want for your own product out of it. And don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to selfishly want things as the owner or manager of a product or business. But at the end of the day, what you’re selling is likely not for youit’s for your consumer, and if more companies don’t begin implementing this type of user-first thinking, you will quickly be outsmarted in the marketplace and left behind by companies who are more willing to take the time to research and ask the important questions to the most importance audience.

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