Cover Photo credit: Brooke Lark on Unsplash

I've been introduced to the Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD) approach for product innovation and development via various Meetup events in years past, but I recently re-kindled my interest while passing by the thrv website. A few clicks into a search for job stories templates, I stumbled upon other sources like jobstobedone.org and Alan Klement's book "When Coffee and Kale Compete". Each source highlights a unique approach to JTBD, but there is more value in extracting the common themes they all share.

If you are familiar with JTBD, choose your own adventure and jump to part (2).

1) A Quick JTBD Refresher

JTBD focuses on understanding what customers are trying to get done in their lives to improve themselves and what set of tools (products) they 'hire' to best do so. Sounds simple enough, but it is a powerful starting point to understanding product innovation and competition. Do you drink coffee to (1) have some relaxing personal time reading in your living room nook before a hectic day (2) socialize with locals/friends on a Sunday morning (3) to gain mental focus and energy? Depending on your goals you might be happy with a home coffee machine (1), replacing coffee with the new neighborhood tea shop that has great seating (2), or a subscription to weekly delivered kale-wheatgrass smoothies (3) (and hence, the title of the book).

JTDB is often discussed as being superior to more familiar approaches to product development, such as persona based customer research that is heavy on demographics and activities. In the above example, it would be argued that personas focus on a archetype customer like 'Katrina' who is 36, married with one child, plays basketball, makes $109,000/yr, an entrepreneur in the construction-tech field, and has little time between managing her kid's school schedule and client meetings to drink her coffee. This might lead a product innovator to iteratively design features like an in-store automatic robot coffee barista or a better tasting instant coffee.

While these features might incrementally improve sales at a coffee shop or a retail product line, the persona entirely misses that she generally drinks coffee to rapidly help her gain energy and keep her regular for a bathroom visit (try to suss that out in a superficial customer interview!). In this case, 'Katrina' might hire the subscription kale-wheatgrass smoothie instead to give her more sustained energy and regular digestive health so she can tackle the mental and physical stresses of a hectic day. Such a product could actually take away significant market share from coffee in the long term. 'Katrina' could easily be 36 and married or 65 and retired. What really matters is not her observed traits but that there exists a substantial group of people all struggling to use coffee and other products to quickly feel energetic and healthy everyday. Of course these JTBD examples are generally concocted to have personas focused on demographics. In reality there is a middle ground where better personas focus on customer identity struggles identified by more customer interviews and less broad survey data.

2) Top Takeaways for JTBD

JTBD theory has been around for decades but has become increasingly popular in recent years. Several new JTBD frameworks are overly prescriptive on enumerating all the jobs and activities a customer has and quantifying the value of each one. However, the greater value from JTBD is a relentless drive to identify and empathize with a customer's struggle to achieve progress despite the limitations of the products available to them.

My biggest takeaways from the several JTBD resources I've come across are:

  1. Customer interviews are crucial for successful product development. We generally accept this as 'common sense', but often end up relying more on the passive collection of large survey and product telemetry data to inform our biggest decisions. Lean on the expertise of your UX/User Research teams for help. JTBD focused customer interviews are likely just one slice of the deep research they complete, so partner with them to understand how your customer behavioral questions fit in.
  2. Seriously, again: If there is only one thing to take away from JTBD, it would be to focus on how to ask the right questions during customer interviews. You want to focus your questions on the 'four forces of progress' (more on the below).
  3. The only constant is that humans (customers) always seek to improve their lives towards a better version of themselves.
  4. It follows that customers are creative and choose some set of tools (products) that help them best overcome their struggles. With this lens you can see that competition can come from anywhere. It can even be disjoint actions across products and tools in the digital or non-digital world. E.g. To free them from worrying about expensive and safe child care, a parent might enroll their 8 year old in AYSO soccer, have them join Boy Scouts of America, and send them to the community pool during the summer instead of hiring a nanny.
  5. Customers have finite time and money. If you expect a customer to use your product, you must understand what budget of time and money you are replacing (this is your competition). This analysis can even inform your initial pricing strategy.
  6. This improvement is a constant cycle: customers encounter obstacles, overcome them with the right tools, and then eventually find new obstacles preventing further improvement.
  7. Understanding how the 'four forces of progress' can work together to bias a customer towards or away from action will help you identify how to improve your product or decide whether it is the right time to build the product.
  8. 'Push' and 'pull' forces combine to determine the intensity of demand. Without a set of circumstances that cause a customer to be unhappy (push) and a set of product(s) that helps them envision a better life (pull), there is not sufficient demand for a change.
  9. 'Anxiety' and 'inertia' forces suppress a customer's demand to change and use your product to achieve their progress. Anxiety occurs when a customer has never used your product and is unsure it can actually get their job done or when they have used your product to get the job done but certain qualities of how the product works are not ideal. Inertia occurs when the existing product(s) a customer uses: have characteristics that prevent them from switching to your new product, or introduce habits that prevent them from using your new product as intended.
  10. Luckily the forces of anxiety and inertia can be discovered and mitigated by interviewing the right set of customers and asking them the right set of questions.
  11. You might give customers that have seen but are anxious to use your product a risk-free trial or an interactive product demonstration. Customers that recently left (churn) or reduced activity with your product can help you identify parts of the product needing improvement to inspire confidence. For example, if you created a carpool commuting app that customers used a handful of times but then stopped, interviews might uncover they liked the product but had issues with the variation in pick up times everyday.
  12. Customers that seem very interested in your product, but just can't ever seem to break their habits and switch to your product might need some sort of transition feature (i.e. a data export/import transfer tool). If new customers of your product complain that the UX is confusing or telemetry shows they are using your product 'out of order', better on-boarding or in-product help can help break their old habits that no longer apply.
  13. Beware of creating products when 'good-enough' solutions exist that don't require a purchase. Trying to sell ultra-light wilderness backpackers a battery operated automatic inflatable air mattress might be a tough sell when they are happy to sleep outdoors on the ground, padded with just leaves and their sleeping bag. “Some problems persist because they're quite simply not worth solving” - Des Traynor, Intercom
  14. A customer's ongoing quest for progress and your unknown future competitor's penchant for 'creative destruction' are undeniable. Relentlessly talk to your customers to understand how to unlock their next progression and cannibalize your own product before a competitor does.
  15. If you create a successful product but yield your privilege to innovate you lose your ability to maintain a competitive product in a marketplace. You then lose your ability to satisfy your customer's associated jobs with new products that define new marketplaces. The classic case study is Kodak, which was a leading film photography company but was intentionally slow to bring digital cameras to market. By the time consumers turned to smartphones for their associated productivity and entertainment jobs, Kodak was too far behind on digital camera and in no position to develop or sell a smartphone. Digital replaced film, email/social replaced prints, and high speed internet allowed video to replace a chunk of still photography.

For more JTDB resources, check out:

  1. jobstobedone.org: http://jobstobedone.org/resources/resources-from-around-the-web/
  2. thrv blog: https://blog.thrv.com/blog
  3. 'JTBD Radio' podcast: https://feeds.feedburner.com/jtbd-radio
  4. jtbd.info (Alan Klement's contributions are often overshadowed by his unnecessary confrontations and checkered past. This has unfortunately fractured parts of the JTBD community and caused unnecessary confusion instead of healthy discussion. Read his contributions for the signal and ignore the noise!): https://jtbd.info/