Studying Jobs to be Done

Customers don’t buy rationally; the ‘why’ behind a purchase can be more revealing than the purchase itself.

"People don't want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole" - Theodore Levitt, 1960s

Jobs to be Done (JTBD) is a theory about consumption and what drives people’s decision making. The concept was fully crystallised in Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Solution.

The Theory of JTBD

The central premise of JTBD is: Customers don’t just buy a product; they “hire” them to do a job.

At a high level, it asserts three things:

  1. People don’t simply buy/use product and services, they “hire” them to get a job done in their life;
  2. People encounter situations that drive and shape their need for these “jobs“; and
  3. People have criteria (often unconscious) to evaluate the success of a job.

Customer jobs are found to typically align to one of three levels of jobs:

Jobs arise when a customer find themselves in a situation that presents an issue or need they must solve. They may have previously addressed this same situation and are now looking for a more effective solution, in which case it’s useful to think about why they are re-examining their toolset.

An Example of the Theory

Using the theory, let’s apply it as a lens to a common customer purchase: headphones.

I like using headphones as an example because I know my personal job for them is quite different to that of many others. And through discussions I’ve found an even wider range of jobs than I previously thought.

The common job across all headphones purchases seems to be “the need to listen to audio from a phone, tablet, or laptop”.

Now there may be specific functional requirements within this purchase, such as the need for Bluetooth connectivity or a maximum purchase amount. In the case of “I need to connect wirelessly to my iPhone XR for as little as possible”, a customer would likely buy Anker’s Bluetooth headphones from Amazon - a cheap option that’s validated by thousands of customer reviews.

Moving into the area of emotional jobs, the customer may want to experience in the music in a much deeper way and have a strong appreciation for the mixing and production of their favourite music. They want to feel surrounded by the audio and may even use a high-res music player or vinyl system to elevate that experience. Sony MDR-Z1R high-res headphones play direcly into this job. And what’s more interesting is that this purchase would likely have a different buying experience; at the very least the time and consideration given to the purchase would be much higher than the functional example.

And finally, the social job. The various iPhone models available nowadays are all used to signify different aspects of social status; those still using an iPhone 5S are communicating a very different image than those buying iPhone 11 Pros on launch day - whether they wish to do so or not. Nothing declares early-adopter more than an iPhone 11 Pro coupled with a pair of AirPods Pro, signalling both the customer’s financial success / recklessness (depending on the observer’s preconceptions) and their status as a leader / innovator. A brand’s existing status can instantly provide us with the social capital we crave - if we can meet the financial requirements of such a purchase.

However, if we look across all three of these examples we can find elements of social jobs across each:

An aspect I haven’t explored here at all is how these jobs can be served differently or better than they currently are. The functional buyer may listen to audio as a way to fill their commute; a book or the Facebook app will also serve this need and negate the purchase of headphones.

Jobs to be Done can help to distinguish the ingoing needs of a customer purchase, allowing companies to better communicate or design their products / services. It can also help companies understand their competition beyond just those products listed in the same category.

Studying a Customer’s Jobs

The framework below shows the flow of customer thinking and the questions we should seek to answer in JTBD research.

First thoughts Situation/trigger Decision Consume/use
When did the customer start thinking they’d need a (new) solution? What led them to actively seek a (new) solution? What criteria did they use to evaluate? Did they achieve their conscious or unconscious goal?
- What's the push of current situation?
- Was there a pull of new solution?
- Do they have a strong allegiance to a current habit?
- What level of anxiety do they have about the new solution?

The methods of a JTBD study are no different to those of a traditional user research and discovery phase of work. JTBD is primarily a tool for framing and understanding the customer problem. I typically use a combination of the following:

Outputs of a JTBD Study

The real value of JTBD is in the outputs and understanding of your customers it provides. I use a selection of the following to understand the data and communicate my findings more widely:

I’m clearly an advocate for JTBD but there are some issues with the approach:

I’ve found JTBD to be far more effective during early stage product / service design, where there is output is much less obvious. Likewise, jobs can be a helpful tool to anchor a company’s purpose and strategy around; in this case, companies should look for the most enduring customer jobs they have a right to serve and continually evolve their offering to do so.

JTBD can be a lightweight method of research that can replace (or enhance) customer personas. Products and services designed with jobs in mind will ultimately be based on real user needs; the deeper the emotional or social connection a product has, the more inspiring and successful the company is likely to be.