Rizwan Reza

I am an engineer and designer with over 15 years of experience. I love crafting useful digital products. I lead several teams at Broadcom to help build Tanzu. In the past, I’ve contributed to open source software including Cloud Foundry and Ruby on Rails. In my free time, I like reading books, writing, and taking photos.


How Jobs-to-be-Done can help you create successful products

Written on June 27, 2015

I recently attended the Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) workshop in the lovely offices of Basecamp. Bob Moesta and Chris Spiek run these one-day workshops in a hands-on manner. The workshop is a blend of presentations and interviews. In total, three interviews were conducted throughout the day.

The JTBD approach has helped me immensely in my product making skills. At Neo, we employ this thinking in our inception of projects and opportunity sprints. We’ve found it to be a helpful tool in understanding customer’s needs better.

As a product maker, I am now interested in understanding the customer’s context, situations, and mental models, so that I can come up with a product that helps them live a better life. The traditional approach that often sought a lightbulb idea product unknown of the customer’s motivations, needs and pain points is a thing of the past for me. If I’ve learned one thing from Lean Startup and JTBD, it’s that great solutions alone don’t make a successful product.

“Customers don’t just buy products, they hire them to do a job.”
– Bob Moesta and Chris Spiek

This is the core shift in mindset required by product makers which leads them to understand the context of the situations in which their customers are in relation to the business model. And, it helps you understand the few important tipping points in their buying lifecycle. Researching this way not only helps in product development, but messaging and marketing also become relatable. It clarifies your focus on your customer segments.

Traditional Business Plans

Traditional businesses come up with bulky documents filled with assumption after assumption, predicted forecasts, and — not to mention — the fancy graphs. It naively focuses on customers based on their demographics and characteristics alone. Such characteristics only include surface level details such as age, interests, place of birth, etc.

Being Lean Startup practitioners, we know making such businesses work feels like a hit and miss. It feels like shooting in the dark hoping for a miracle to happen. The number of assumptions tied together are just a tad too high for the success probability to be in its favor. If a business plan is just a set of assumptions, why not focus on the few most important ones and work out from there?

Minimum Viable Products

The world of startups today has understood the promise of rapid prototyping and minimum viable products (MVPs). The premise is to bring the product in front of customers faster and cheaper. It’s still hit-and-miss like above but far cheaper than investing a million dollars in a lab hidden behind an NDA for 3 years. You get to talk to customers before, and you try to understand what they want. But, we know startups are still failing, and fixating on the solution too much still hurts and results in failures.

Failing fast and cheap is better, but I’d still rather not fail. The Jobs approach helps you understand the customers’ story and their situation so your probability of success is higher. You thus come up with hypotheses and assumptions which are closer to reality.

Proctor & Gamble saw a change from 15% to 50% in their success rate of launching new products after employing these methodologies. So, how can we come up with hypotheses for our assumptions that have higher success rates too?

Why I bought a Mazda3?

We bought a car last year. I will use this purchase to give you an example of how a car buyer goes through the decision process. Thinking back, here are some of considerations I was making at the time:

  • I didn’t know whether I’d live in the US for longer than a couple of years, so a bigger investment was out of the question. It was cheap enough for me to buy the base model with cash because I had no credit history as a new resident.
  • I love Mazda because it has the best handling in its class for the price when it comes to performance. All other cars drive worse and look functional and boxy. For me, this car is a great balance between form and function.
  • I have two kids, so I wanted a 4-seater sedan.
  • This is a car which my wife would be driving more than me, so her comfort was more important.
  • Even with all of the above, I wasn’t in a hurry to buy a car. Until we noticed our daughter’s preschool was 30 miles away — a long commute by public transport!

The demographic I am in did not cause me to buy a Mazda3 last year; it’s not because I am ethnically Indian and in my late 20s that I decided to buy a Mazda3.

All of the reasons above are situations I had in my life at the time except for one. Handling and price are the only two variables that both Mazda controlled and mattered to me. From the initial thought to the tipping point of the purchase, there were a series of events in my life that led me to make the commitment. As product makers, it’s immensely valuable to have a few stories like these about people considering your product. These stories help position your product directly and clearly. A product for everyone is for no one.

How can you understand your customer’s world?

Focus on Causality

The JTBD approach talks about focusing on the customer’s journey and understanding the tipping points in their timeline. This method helps to understand what situation arises in customers’ lives that ultimately drives them to hire, so to speak, your product instead of the product of one of your competitors. The few tipping points in the purchase timeline help you define the main Job your product is hired for.

JTBD is a radical shift in thinking about products to understand causality, rather than think of a solution as an isolated product composed of features.

Outcomes, Not Products

I love this video by one of the originators of the Jobs-to-be-Done framework, Clayton Christensen, explaining the concept.

Let’s think about the life of the car commuter as Clayton mentions in the video. This is the context they are in:

  • They’re hungry in the morning sitting idly for long periods in traffic. They want to eat something, but nothing that’s done quickly like a banana, gets their hands gooey like a doughnut, or requires effort to prepare like a bagel and jam.
  • They buy this milkshake at a drive-thru because it’s big and lasts for most of their commute, doesn’t spill or make a mess, and doesn’t require any preparation.
  • The actual contents of the milkshake are less relevant.

The Job of the milkshake is to keep commuters busy because their commute is long and boring. This is the outcome it helps commuters achieve. What’s irrelevant is whether the customer was born in the 60s or the 80s.

That’s why traditional personas don’t encompass the full story of the customer. While they may be fancy to look at, they miss the most important part of the story: context.

Compete Differently

Who’s competing with Black & Decker’s drill? It’s easy to come up with a list of drill manufacturers. This is how we think about product competition typically, though the answers differ when we shift our focus to the outcome and the need. Thinking in terms of Jobs states the purpose of products. It’s surprising how competition would seem completely unrelated on the surface, but makes perfect sense when the focus shifts to the outcome.

The customer does not think of buying a drill and finds herself at Home Depot without a reason. If the job of the drill is making a hole in her wall so she can hang a picture, fancy 3M adhesives can achieve the same outcome. And now the competitive landscape has shifted drastically. The competition isn’t defined by product category anymore, but rather their outcomes. As the product maker, thinking that only drills from other makers in the market are their competition is a huge disadvantage for Black & Decker.

“It’s the job customers hire the product for that defines the competitive landscape of the product.”

And mind you, most products’ jobs are abstracted in such a way that they help people achieve multiple outcomes. So while a 3M adhesive can help Sally hang her dog’s picture, it won’t help when she wants to secure her furniture to the wall. So the competition is best categorized by outcomes. It’s the entrepreneur’s responsibility to tune their products for jobs they want their product to solve best.

Context vs Content

The content you make, your product, is eventually confined by the context it’s in when in the hands of the customer. This explains why you can search for “clever uses of products” and get astonishing results. The context has forced the customer to think of completely different ways of hiring that product. Most products fail when the content (their product) is ejected from the context it’s supposed to be in. Before people can find clever uses of your product, you have to ingrain the product in the customer’s context. I have found the Jobs approach to be immensely helpful for that.

“Content is what you make for them. Context is what you mean to them.”

So the next time you are starting to build something, remember that people don’t buy stuff, they buy what it does for them. I’ve found that this helps me come up with better assumptions, hypotheses, mockups, prototypes and designs because I have an understanding of the customers’ world. I hope it helps you too.

If you’d like to dig deeper, I recommend attending Bob and Chris’ workshop. I also recommend reading this paper, or these articles. Bob and Chris have developed two frameworks: the Forces Diagram and the Customer Timeline. Both of these are tools worth your attention if you want to understand and have artifacts of a product in your customer’s world.