Jobs to be Done Should be in Your User Experience Toolkit

Design in corporate America has always had an identity crisis in my opinion. While development has been institutionalized for many decades, design is constantly fighting to be taken seriously. Much of what is considered part of the design process are deliverables meant to remind our colleagues that our customers are important.

We talk of user needs, wants, and desires, but our processes tend to be biased by what the company does and expects to continue doing. We take existing products and try to make them work better for our customers. Those incremental improvements are important for companies exploiting their existing business models. But I think where designers can truly add value is in the development of innovative solutions to our customer’s problems. This is where Jobs to be Done comes in.

Studying Jobs to be Done (JTBD) theory over the last year has changed the way I will research and design products for the foreseeable future. What I used to think of as the “art” of design and design thinking has been driven into algorithm by JTBD. 

JTBD is truly customer centric, because jobs are technology agnostic. The customer is in a constant struggle to make progress in their lives. Your goal is to learn what job the customer hired a product or service to do. The primary way you get to this information is through qualitative research, which is something in the wheelhouse of many user experience professionals.

Here’s Harvard professor Clayton Christensen explaining JTBD in an excerpt of a Harvard Business Review article:

“What they really need to home in on is the progress that the customer is trying to make in a given circumstance—what the customer hopes to accomplish. This is what we’ve come to call the job to be done…
… When we buy a product, we essentially “hire” it to help us do a job. If it does the job well, the next time we’re confronted with the same job, we tend to hire that product again. And if it does a crummy job, we “fire” it and look for an alternative. (We’re using the word “product” here as shorthand for any solution that companies can sell; of course, the full set of “candidates” we consider hiring can often go well beyond just offerings from companies.)”

I will attempt to describe JTBD by referencing the ubiquitous quote (often miss-attributed to Henry Ford): “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” As a user experience designer, I have used that quote to help communicate mistakes people make when conducting user research. The lesson here is you can’t really ask someone to explain what they want, because it ends up being a confabulated story that is either meant to make themselves look good, or it is what they think you want to hear. Either way, it is not helpful for product development. Anyone who has been designing for more than a couple years has made the mistake of taking customers literally by adding features that are never adopted.

"You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new.” - Steve Jobs

If we were to further examine the quote using the JTBD lens, we would start by asking the question: what job is the customer hiring the horse for? One answer is the horse provides transportation, or how to get from point A to point B. Now we’re getting somewhere (pun intended). Transportation is a job that has existed since the dawn of time. You can imagine a person 70,000 years ago moving from point A to point B by walking. 50,000 years ago we began sailing the open seas. 6000 years ago domesticated horses became a new mode of transportation. 5500 years ago the wheel was invented and shortly after people were using wheeled carts to move their goods around. The steam locomotive was invented in early 19th century and rail transportation matured in the decades that followed as a way to move large amounts of people and cargo across long distances.

As you can see the Job to be Done is technology independent. The only thing that changes is the technology, not the job itself. People hire products to help them make progress in their lives. Too many people focus on the technology while the customer is trying to achieve a desired outcome that has nothing to do with your product. 


This also highlights a major difference about JTBD thinking, you are actually competing with many different solutions to a customer’s job that are not your strict competitors. Automakers don’t only compete with other automakers; they compete against public transportation, ride-hailing, carpooling, taxis, bicycles, and even walking. With the JTBD lens Skype and similar communication technologies can also compete against all of the above transportation methods by making travel unnecessary.

So the next question to ask is, how do we improve transportation? The referenced quote contains an important clue, the word faster. One way to improve transportation is by making it faster. You can also make transportation more convenient, less expensive, and safer. Or you could improve the availability of the automobile. Most people don’t know there were over 100 automobile makers when Ford rolled out the Model T. The automobile was more or less a wealthy person’s curiosity. It was expensive, because it was handmade by skilled craftsman one at a time. They were also complex which made them expensive to maintain and repair. 

Henry Ford’s contribution to the automobile industry was the moving assembly line. Instead of the automobile being custom built in place by skilled craftsman, the simplified design of the Model T could be built by unskilled people who were trained on individual steps of the assembly process as the vehicle moved through the factory. The innovation eventually allowed a new Model T to roll off the assembly line every 24 seconds. This reduced the overall cost and allowed many thousands and then millions of people to afford the automobile. As you can see it’s unlikely a customer, whose primary mode of transportation is a horse, could have told Henry Ford that he need to improve the assembly line, so it could reduce the cost of automobile ownership. Even if Henry Ford didn’t say the quote, you could imagine him doing so. 

Fast-forward to today and technology is once again changing transportation. Companies like Uber and Lyft who are making transportation more reliable and redundant by replacing taxis and car rentals. Then consider autonomous driving vehicles, which could potentially change the relationship between driver and the automobile forever. Not to mention drastically reduce the need for the more than three million professional drivers in the United States. 

Of course, we should not make assumptions about why people hire new solutions. Instead we can interview them using a well-documented technique developed by Bob Moesta, one of the JTBD architects. This technique borrows from interrogation methods to uncover the decision making process a customer goes through when switching to a new product or service.

Recruiting the right participants is critical for JTBD interviews. It’s important to only interview customers who have actually made a switch to a new solution. Make sure the switch happened recent enough for the participants to remember the important details of the process. After doing a couple of these interviews, I realized you also need participants whose experience switching had a decent amount of energy or emotion behind it. It was harder for me to pull insights out of people who were indifferent about the switch.

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” - Steve Jobs

Executives and marketing people love to hear customers talk about what the will do and why they will do it. In my experience, the results of interview participants and focus groups that are presented with hypothetical situations about buying a new product aren’t reliable and tend to promote confirmation bias rather than produce actionable insights.

The interview technique takes into account context of the situation, motivations, habits, and anxieties or what Moesta illustrates in the Progress Making Forces Diagram. The decision may have an important deadline or the new solution can create a pull towards switching if it gets the job done significantly better and/or less expensive. On the other hand, the anxiety surrounding a new solution, and a customer’s current habits may prevent them from making a switch. You can imagine a tipping point where push of the situation and the pull of the new solution overcome the customer’s current habits and anxiety.

Now that is actionable information to have. You can use it to inform your product development process. You can update marketing information to explain how your product can do the customer’s job better. You can create help content to calm any potential anxieties. These are things that can actually move the needle.

The subtle beauty of the JTBD theory is that the job to be done has three dimensions, functional, emotional, and social. The functional job is what most companies concentrate on. However, user experience professionals understand that there are emotional and social jobs that need to be considered.

The last point I want to make about JTBD is that customers hire a product in two ways. The first is when customers purchase your product, which is called the “big hire.” The second, known as the “little hire” is every time they use your product.

There are a several ways you can think about the two hires. If you are B2B company selling enterprise software, the big hire probably happens in a “procurement bubble” while the little hire happens when the end-user, a captive audience, utilizes the software. The frustrations of the end-users may not be communicated back to you, which is a big risk when the product comes up for renewal.

Another way to think about this is engagement. You win over a new customer (the big hire), but that customer never uses your product or only use limited functionality (the little hire). That can be a red flag that your product is not getting the job done. Instead of “increasing engagement” you should talk to your customers to understand how to improve your product, the marketing, or the support content to get their job done better.

That’s a pretty big departure from how companies normally think. Sure, a company may track utilization, but the major feedback loop is based on the sale. Once the sale is made, a lot of assumptions are made about how well the product works for the customer. Marketing and sale’s responsibility ends with the sale, but the expectation they set must be met by design and development. Complaints may come in about the product, and companies consider this to be an effective way to understand customer needs. The truth of the matter is customers make trade-offs and their complaints, while important, don’t necessarily reflect intention to switch to a new solution. Meanwhile, you may actually harm your product by adding functionality that makes it more complex for everyone else. This opens the door for a competitor to provide a solution that gets the job done better, while being simpler and cheaper.

Jobs to be Done is a complex, nuanced theory and I’ve only scratched the surface here. Like Design Thinking, it comes from the business world, which gives it certain amount of credibility. Once you look through the JTBD lens, it will be hard to see the world, or your profession in the same way again.

I’ve compiled a list of resources to help continue your exploration of JTBD.

This is the first article I have ever shared. I'm constantly reading and then teaching what I learn to help others and further understand the concepts of what I read. If you like (or hate) this article, let me know. It's the only way to improve. Thanks!