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Jobs-to-Be-Done in Your UX Toolbox

Part 1: What is JTBD?

The concept of a “job” in “Jobs-To-Be-Done” is neatly encapsulated by a oft-quoted line from Theodore Levitt:

“People want a quarter-inch hole, not a quarter inch drill”.

Even so, Don Norman pointed out that perhaps Levitt “stopped too soon” at what the real customer goal might be. In the “The Design of Everyday Things”, he wrote:

“Levitt’s example of the drill implying that the goal is really a hole is only partially correct, however. When people go to a store to buy a drill, that is not their real goal. But why would anyone want a quarter-inch hole? Clearly that is an intermediate goal. Perhaps they wanted to hang shelves on the wall. Levitt stopped too soon. Once you realize that they don’t really want the drill, you realize that perhaps they don’t really want the hole, either: they want to install their bookshelves. Why not develop methods that don’t require holes? Or perhaps books that don’t require bookshelves.”

In other words, a “job” in JTBD lingo is a way to express a user need or provide a customer-centric problem frame that’s independent of a solution. As Tony Ulwick says:

“A job is stable, it doesn’t change over time.”

An example of a job is “tiding you over from breakfast to lunch.” You could hire a donut, a flapjack or a banana for that mid-morning snack—whatever does the job. If you can arrive at a clearly identified primary job (and likely some secondary ones too), you can be more creative in how you come up with an effective solution while keeping the customer problem in focus.

The team at Intercom wrote a book on their application of JTBD. In it, Des Traynor cleverly characterised how JTBD provides a different way to think about solutions that compete for the same job:

“Economy travel and business travel are both capable candidates applying for [the job: Get me face-to-face with my colleague in San Francisco], though they’re looking for significantly different salaries. Video conferencing isn’t as capable, but is willing to work for a far smaller salary. I’ve a hiring choice to make.”

So far so good: it’s relatively simple to understand what a job is, once you understand how it’s different from a “task”. Business consultant and Harvard professor Clay Christensen talks about the concept of “hiring” a product to do a “job”, and firing it when something better comes along. If you’re a company that focuses solutions on the customer job, you’re more likely to succeed. You’ll find these concepts often referred to as “Jobs-to-be-Done theory”. But the application of Jobs-to-Be-Done theory is a little more complicated; it comprises several related approaches.

I particularly like Jim Kalbach’s description of how JTBD is a “lens through which to understand value creation”. But it is also more. In my view, it’s a family of frameworks and methods—and perhaps even a philosophy.

Different facets in a family of frameworks

JTBD has its roots in market research and business strategy, and so it comes to the research table from a slightly different place compared to traditional UX or design research—we have our roots in human-computer interaction and ergonomics. I’ve found it helpful to keep in mind is that the application of JTBD theory is an evolving beast, so it’s common to find contradictions across different resources. My own use of it has varied from project to project. In speaking to others who have adopted it in different measures, it seems that we have all applied it in somewhat multifarious ways. As we like to often say in interviews: there are no wrong answers.

Outcome Driven Innovation

Tony Ulwick’s version of the JTBD history began with Outcome Driven Innovation (ODI), and this approach is best outlined in his seminal article published in the Harvard Business Review in 2002. To understand his more current JTBD approach in his new book “Jobs to Be Done: Theory to Practice”, I actually found it beneficial to read his approach in the original 2002 article for a clearer reference point.

In the earlier article, Ulwick presented a rigorous approach that combines interviews, surveys and an “opportunity” algorithm—a sequence of steps to determine the business opportunity. ODI centres around working with “desired outcome statements” that you unearth through interviews, followed by a means to quantify the gap between importance and satisfaction in a survey to different types of customers.

Since 2008, Ulwick has written about using job maps to make sense of what the customer may be trying to achieve. In a recent article, he describes the aim of the activity is “to discover what the customer is trying to get done at different points in executing a job and what must happen at each juncture in order for the job to be carried out successfully.”

A job map is not strictly a journey map, however tempting it is to see it that way. From a UX perspective, is one of many models we can use—and as our research team at Clearleft have found, how we use model can depend on the nature of the jobs we’ve uncovered in interviews and the characteristics of the problem we’re attempting to solve.

Figure 1. Universal job map

Ulwick’s current methodology is outlined in his new book, where he describes a complete end-to-end process: from customer and competitor research to framing market and product strategy.

The Jobs-To-Be-Done Interview

Back in 2013, I attended a workshop by Chris Spiek and Bob Moesta from the ReWired Group on JTBD at the behest of a then-MailChimp colleague, and I came away excited about their approach to product research. It felt different from anything I’d done before and for the first time in years, I felt that I was genuinely adding something new to my research toolbox.

A key idea is that if you focus on the stories of those who switched to you, and those who switch away from you, you can uncover the core jobs through looking at these opposite ends of engagement.

This framework centres around the JTBD interview method, which harnesses the power of a narrative framework to elicit the real reasons why someone “hired” something to do a job—be it something physical like a new coffee maker, or a digital service, such as a to-do list app. As you interview, you are trying to unearth the context around the key moments on the JTBD timeline (Figure 2). A common approach is to begin from the point the customer might have purchased something, back to the point where the thought of buying this thing first occurred to them.

Figure 2. JTBD Timeline
Figure 3. The Four Forces

The Forces Diagram (Figure 3) is a post-interview analysis tool where you can map out what causes customers to switch to something new and what holds them back.

The JTBD interview is effective at identifying core and secondary jobs, as well as some context around the user need. Because this method is designed to extract the story from the interviewee, it’s a powerful way to facilitate recall. Having done many such interviews, I’ve noticed one interesting side effect: participants often remember more details later on after the conversation has formally ended. It is worth scheduling a follow-up phone call or keep the channels open.

Strengths aside, it’s good to keep in mind that the JTBD interview is still primarily an interview technique, so you are relying on the context from the interviewee’s self-reported perspective. For example, a stronger research methodology combines JTBD interviews with contextual research and quantitative methods.

Job Stories

Alan Klement is credited for coming up with the term “job story” to describe the framing of jobs for product design by the team at Intercom:

“When … I want to … so I can ….”

Figure 4. Anatomy of a Job Story

Unlike a user story that traditionally frames a requirement around personas, job stories frame the user need based on the situation and context. Paul Adams, the VP of Product at Intercom, wrote:

“We frame every design problem in a Job, focusing on the triggering event or situation, the motivation and goal, and the intended outcome. […] We can map this Job to the mission and prioritise it appropriately. It ensures that we are constantly thinking about all four layers of design. We can see what components in our system are part of this Job and the necessary relationships and interactions required to facilitate it. We can design from the top down, moving through outcome, system, interactions, before getting to visual design.”

Systems of Progress

Apart from advocating using job stories, Klement believes that a core tenet of applying JTBD revolves around our desire for “self-betterment”—and that focusing on everyone’s desire for self-betterment is core to a successful strategy.

In his book, Klement takes JTBD further to being a tool for change through applying systems thinking. There, he introduces the systems of progress and how it can help focus product strategy approach to be more innovative.

Coincidentally, I applied similar thinking on mapping systemic change when we were looking to improve users’ trust with a local government forum earlier this year. It’s not just about capturing and satisfying the immediate job-to-be-done, it’s about framing the job so that you can a clear vision forward on how you can help your users improve their lives in the ways they want to.

This is really the point where JTBD becomes a philosophy of practice.

Part 2: Mixing It Up

There has been some misunderstanding about how adopting JTBD means ditching personas or some of our existing design tools or research techniques. This couldn’t have been more wrong.

Figure 5: Jim Kalbach’s JTBD model

Jim Kalbach has used Outcome-Driven Innovation for around 10 years. In a 2016 article, he presents a synthesised model of how to think about that has key elements from ODI, Christensen’s theories and the structure of the job story.

More interestingly, Kalbach has also combined the use of mental models with JTBD.

Claire Menke of UDemy has written a comprehensive article about using personas, JTBD and customer journey maps together in order to communicate more complete story from the users’ perspective. Claire highlights an especially interesting point in her article as she described her challenges:

“After much trial and error, I arrived at a foundational research framework to suit every team’s needs — allowing everyone to share the same holistic understanding, but extract the type of information most applicable to their work.”

In other words, the organisational context you are in likely can dictate what works best—after all the goal is to arrive at the best user experience for your audiences. Intercom can afford to go full-on on applying JTBD theory as a dominant approach because they are a start-up, but a large company or organisation with multiple business units may require a mix of tools, outputs and outcomes.

JTBD is an immensely powerful approach on many fronts—you’ll find many different references that lists the ways you can apply JTBD. However, in the context of this discussion, it might also be useful to we examine where it lies in our models of how we think about our UX and product processes.

JTBD in the UX ecosystem

Figure 6. The Elements of User Experience (source)

There are many ways we have tried to explain the UX discipline but I think Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience is a good place to begin.

I sometimes also use little diagram to help me describe the different levels you might work at when you work through the complexity of designing and developing a product. A holistic UX strategy needs to address all the different levels for a comprehensive experience: your individual product UI, product features, product propositions and brand need to have a cohesive definition.

Figure 7. Which level of product focus?

We could, of course, also think about where it fits best within the double diamond.

Again, bearing in mind that JTBD has its roots in business strategy and market research, it is excellent at clarifying user needs, defining high-level specifications and content requirements. It is excellent for validating brand perception and value proposition —all the way down to your feature set. In other words, it can be extremely powerful all the way through to halfway of the second diamond. You could quite readily combine the different JTBD approaches because they have differences as much as overlaps. However, JTBD generally starts getting a little difficult to apply once we get to the details of UI design.

The clue lies in JTBD’s raison d’être: a job statement is solution independent. Hence, once we get to designing solutions, we potentially fall into a existential black hole.

That said, Jim Kalbach has a quick case study on applying JTBD to content design tucked inside the main article on a synthesised JTBD model. Alan Klement has a great example of how you could use UI to resolve job stories. You’ll notice that the available language of “jobs” drops off at around that point.

Job statements and outcome statements provide excellent “mini north-stars” as customer-oriented focal points, but purely satisfying these statements would not necessarily guarantee that you have created a seamless and painless user experience.

Playing well with others

You will find that JTBD plays well with Lean, and other strategy tools like the Value Proposition Canvas. With every new project, there is potential to harness the power of JTBD alongside our established toolbox.

When we need to understand complex contexts where cultural or socioeconomic considerations have to be taken into account, we are better placed with combining JTBD with more anthropological approaches. And while we might be able to evaluate if our product, website or app satisfies the customer jobs through interviews or surveys, without good old-fashioned usability testing we are unlikely to be able to truly validate why the job isn’t being represented as it should. In this case, individual jobs solved on the UI can be set up as hypotheses to be proven right or wrong.

The application of Jobs-to-be-Done is still evolving. I’ve found it to be very powerful and I struggle to remember what my UX professional life was like before I encountered it—it has completely changed my approach to research and design.

The fact JTBD is still evolving as a practice means we need to be watchful of dogma—there’s no right way to get a UX job done after all, it nearly always depends. At the end of the day, isn’t it about having the right tool for the right job?

About the author

Steph is the Head of Research at Clearleft, where she helps companies and organisations build customer intelligence through combining design research with other disciplines. Prior to that, she led design research at the Telegraph and spearheaded European customer research with MailChimp. In over 15 years of working in the digital industry, Steph has won many hats, including a product lead for a startup in digital publishing and a director of technology at a digital agency.

She is also a regular speaker at conferences and guest lectures on UX annually at the University of Greenwich. When not bound to a digital device, she makes things by hand, grows edible flowers and has a tendency to cook enough to feed a continent at a time. She now lives on her 4th continent on her 4th island, in East Sussex, UK.

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