How to Use "Jobs To Be Done" to Understand Customer Problems

Recently, I read Competing Against Luck, Clayton Christensen's book about his jobs-to-be-done theory. Like many product managers, I've heard of the theory at a high level but didn’t understand how it was different from just understanding customer problems.

It turns out that the theory is about understanding customer problems, but I still learned a lot from the book. Here are my top five takeaways:

What Clayton Christensen Taught Me

1. Customers don’t buy products. Instead, they hire products to make progress in a specific circumstance

A job is the progress that a customer is trying to make in a specific circumstance or context. Jobs are not generic needs like “convenience” or “safety.” To identify a job, it’s critical to understand the specific context that's preventing your customer from making progress.

2. Customers hire your product to help them make emotional and social progress

Customers don't just hire your product to get something done; they also want to make emotional and social progress.

For example, when P&G launched Pampers in China, it emphasized how cheap the diapers were. Sales were abysmal—Chinese moms were used to cloth diapers and didn't care that disposable diapers had lower prices.

P&G realized that moms didn't want cheaper diapers, they wanted more sleep. So P&G did a study which claimed that babies who wore Pampers fell asleep 30% faster and that more sleep helped cognitive development. This study appealed to Chinese mom's emotional need for more sleep and Chinese society's emphasis on academic progress. Pampers became the top-selling diaper brand in China after the study was published.

3. Use interviews and journey mapping to understand the context that's preventing a customer from making progress

Understanding a customer's specific context is a two-step process. First, set up an interview with a customer who recently hired a product in your category. During this interview, try to understand what the customer was thinking, feeling, and doing before hiring the product. Once you've conducted a few interviews, create a journey map that highlights each step of a customer's journey. This map will help you identify the job-to-be-done.

The book gives an example of a customer who purchased a mattress at Costco, seemingly at a whim. The customer didn't care about the mattress's attributes. Instead, "the progress that he was trying to make was to get a good night's sleep to be a better husband while the rest of his life was taking a toll on him." He was desperate to fire his old mattress because it gave him aches every morning that affected his emotional state. He hired the new mattress at Costco because his wife was there to approve his purchase. In other words, he bought the mattress at Costco to address his emotional and social needs.

4. Understand what existing solution customers have to fire to hire your product

The mattress example makes it clear that customers have to fire an existing solution to hire your product. Two forces could prevent customers from firing their existing solution:

  • Current habits (I'm used to doing things this way) 

  • Anxiety about the new (What if this new solution not better?)

When crafting a product, think about how you can design an experience to overcome these forces (e.g. free returns, trials).

5. Ask yourself these four questions to find jobs

In addition to interviews and journey mapping, you can find jobs by asking four questions:

  1. What are the important jobs in your own life?

    For example, Sal Khan from Khan Academy started creating math videos because he wanted to help his cousin discover the joy of learning math.

  2. Who are the people who are not hiring your product?

    For example, 40% of adults over 50 suffer from lack of control over their bladder. Yet, most people in this segment don’t want to wear adult diapers because it makes them feel embarrassed and inadequate. With this insight, Kimberly-Clark developed adult diapers that looked like underwear, including a transparent window in the packaging to feel the product.

  3. How are people hacking your product to do a job?

    For example, when I worked at Twitch, broadcasters were pasting links in chat to encourage viewers to visit their friend's channels. We built raids off of this organic behavior and the product took off because people were already “hacking” Twitch to do this job.

  4. What do people not want to do?

    For example, most people don't want to go to the doctor for common illnesses like the flu. Scheduling a doctor appointment is a hassle, and urgent care centers are expensive with long lines. CVS created minute clinics to help people get treated for common illnesses without lines, appointments, or high costs.

Why is jobs-to-be-done important?

Jobs-to-be-done is essential because organizations tend to focus less on jobs as they grow larger. As Professor Christensen describes:

Managers inside a corporation - especially large ones - rarely know their customers directly. They know their customers through data because there's so much that you can easily measure: traffic, conversion rates, etc.

One of the fundamental mistakes that people make is to collect a handful of data points from a large sample of respondents when what they really need is a huge number of data points from a smaller sample.

Great insights have more to do with depth than breadth.

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I also go into more detail about understanding customer problems in my product management book