Jobs To Be Done in a Nutshell

TL;DR: The theory of Jobs To Be Done explains that too much focus on socio-demographic data and correlations hurts companies. Rather, you have to gain a deeper understanding of your customers, who “hire” your product to help them do certain jobs under certain circumstances. For instance, you don’t buy a video game console because you’re male and over 30. You hire it to, e.g., do the job “connect with friends”.

It was only two years ago that I first heard about the theory of Jobs To Be Done (abbreviated: JTBD). Since then, the approach has gained traction in user experience and conversion rate optimization environments. But what exactly is a Job To Be Done? Here’s a brief primer.

The first article I ever read on the topic was published in Harvard Business Review in September 2016 (by Clayton M. Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David S. Duncan). Therefore, this one will be my primary source for the remainder of this article.

A Focus on Correlation Is Taking Firms in the Wrong Direction

The core argument of Christensen et al. is that for understanding their customers, companies are focusing too much on socio-demographic properties rather than paying attention to customers’ actual problems. Or, as they put it:

After decades of watching great companies fail, we’ve come to the conclusion that the focus on correlation—and on knowing more and more about customers—is taking firms in the wrong direction. 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.

This means, very simply put, rather than saying “Buyers of the Washington Post usually are over 40 and from metropolitan areas”—thus assuming that anyone over 40 from a metropolitan area is a potential buyer—say: “Buyers of the Washington Post want to be informed about current events by a credible source”.

This focus on problems is key, because, according to Christensen et al., “when we buy a product, we essentially ‘hire’ it to help us do a job”. In my above example, there are actually two jobs: become informed about current events and find a credible source. And the Washington Post seems to be good at doing both of those.

Circumstances > Customer Characteristics

Besides customers’ actual problems, however, there’s another key factor: circumstances. For this, let’s have a look at a different example:

I own a Nintendo Switch. Now, which jobs does my Switch help me accomplish? I can think of a couple:

  1. remember or “re-experience” my childhood
  2. entertain myself
  3. compete against and connect with friends
  4. pass time

Yet, each of these jobs is more or less relevant depending on the given circumstances. Job № 1 might be the one to do when I’m feeling down, job numbers 2 and 4 when I’m bored, and job № 3 when I miss my friends.

Nintendo might know that I’m a German male over 30 with a job in eCommerce, but doesn’t the above tell them much more about why I’ve bought a Switch and will (most probably) keep buying Nintendo products in the future? Christensen et al. answer this (slightly rhetorical) question:

The circumstances are more important than customer characteristics, product attributes, new technologies, or trends.

Types of Jobs

The authors further characterize Jobs To Be Done by social, emotional, and functional dimensions. Jobs usually fall in all three of those dimensions to certain degrees. One example they give is that of continued education through online university courses. Here, the functional dimension is “getting the training needed to advance in a career”, but there are also powerful social and emotional dimensions when, e.g., people want to make their parents proud, or do it to be able to better provide for their kids. Jobs can obviously have a stronger focus on one dimension over the others. To get back to my Nintendo Switch example from above, jobs № 1 and 2 could be described as more emotional, job № 3 as more social, and job № 4 as more functional.

On top of that, in a different article (in German), Lea Koch describes that Jobs To Be Done can be further divided into “main” (direct, obvious) jobs and “related” (indirect, hidden) jobs. She gives a number of examples based on Christensen’s “milkshake experiment”. One direct job a milkshake can do is to serve as a second breakfast, while an indirect job is to keep the buyer’s hands clean by not making them sticky. Very roughly speaking, direct and indirect jobs can be distinguished by their priority for the customers as well as by how obvious they are to them.

Some Final Thoughts

Christensen et al.’s HBR article states:

[…] disruption theory doesn’t tell you how to create products and services that customers want to buy. Jobs-to-be-done theory does. It transforms our understanding of customer choice in a way that no amount of data ever could, because it gets at the causal driver behind a purchase.

And, furthermore:

Jobs are never simply about function—they have powerful social and emotional dimensions.

Now, when I, as a UX professional, look at these statements, I quickly see that the two principles described—a deep understanding of peoples’ problems and desires, and a deep understanding of their social and emotional contexts—are exactly what’s also at the core of UX research, and in particular, persona research. One major difference compared to JTBD seems to be that jobs are usually described as problems or pain points, and circumstances as contexts of use. But the observation that socio-demographic data alone cannot tell you enough about your customers is the exact same thing that I have explained over and over when trying to get across the difference between simple customer segments and design personas.

You have to understand users’ specific needs, desires, pain points, and contexts of use to provide a good experience and, in the end, a successful product.

You cannot design an online shop for a “blonde 40-year old with a husband and a household income of $50,000”. But you can much better for a “user who has to replace kids’ jeans frequently, but only has the time and motivation when lying on the couch with their mobile phone for half an hour in the evening”.

Ultimately, UX research and JTBD are complementary. Proper UX and persona research should already (at least implicitly) include Jobs To Be Done; and Jobs To Be Done are a very structured and easy-to-understand way to formulate customers’ pain points, contexts of use, as well as social and emotional circumstances.

Calls to Action

  1. Read Does Anyone Actually Want to “Do Jobs”?
  2. Read Personas vs. Jobs-to-Be-Done
  3. Take one of your favorite products (like I took my Nintendo Switch) and think about the circumstances in which you bought it and all the different circumstances in which you use it. Then, write down what jobs you hired it for. Are these jobs direct or indirect? Are they more functional, more emotional, or more social?
My handwritten notes on the theory of Jobs To Be Done.
My handwritten notes on the theory of Jobs To Be Done.

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