Getting Started With Jobs to Be Done

Jobs to Be Done gives CEOs, Marketers, Product Managers, and Experience Designers a unified way to think about business strategy, customer research, and experience design. This article is a summary of basic Jobs to Be Done concepts based on Clay Christensen’s Competing Against Luck.

The Big Idea: Target the circumstances, not the customer

Jobs Theory originated with the question of What causes someone to buy a product or service?

Christensen’s conclusion after years of observation is that customers hire products and services when particular circumstances arise in their lives.

“Companies that target their products at the circumstances in which customers find themselves, rather than at the customers themselves, are those that can launch predictably successful products,” Chistensen writes. “Put another way, the critical unit of analysis is the circumstance and not the customer.”

Demographic-based segmentation (like “manager at a large bank”) has its uses but demographics don’t explain why some people buy while others don’t, nor do they explain the timing of buying decisions. In contrast, similar circumstances cause people who are very different to look for similar solutions. Circumstances are a better predictor of behaviour.

There is a similar concept of “analogous inspiration” in Design Thinking. For example, a fast food kitchen looking for efficiency innovations might seek inspiration from similar contexts like a race-car pit stop or factory floor.

Help Wanted! For what job are you hiring Jobs to Be Done?

Right now, your circumstances might have caused you to consider hiring Jobs Theory. You will do so if you feel it’s good at the job that’s arisen. Are you hiring for any of these jobs?

I need help to figure out what the right things to build are and what to measure

Your Struggle: “Our team likes to say we are “user-centered” but has trouble figuring out what questions to ask and what features to build. Product directions originate with investors, CEOs, and technical opportunities rather than customer observations. We will of course test all ideas with customers, but we have no way of knowing what will work until we invest the time in building it. When we do get to talk to customers directly, we get caught up in “feature chase” with tons of features in the backlog and no idea about what the right thing to build is. Our KPIs provide little guidance on how to increase value to customers.”

How Jobs helps: Focus your business on the customers’ job to be done. Once you have uncovered the job, everything you build and measure is focused on getting hired and doing the job well. Feature are prioritized that help do the job. Your most important KPIs are ones that tell you whether you are improving your customers’ lives. You are not just measuring what matters to you. You’re measuring what matters to your customers. For example, Amazon focuses on fast delivery, not shipping. Creating its own distribution network was expensive, but it gives Amazon control over what their customers really care about. Internal factors like reducing costs and finding efficiencies, these can be solved later. But Amazon is only Amazon when it’s delivering faster than anybody else.

I need help to align strategy, user experience, and product development in my organization.

Your Struggle: “ I’ve read a great deal about business strategy on the one hand and product delivery on the other. I believe yourself to lead a customer-centred organization, but I’m not sure how to translate that principle into practice at both the strategy level and the product level. There is something missing.”

How Jobs helps: Jobs Theory takes a big picture view of your competitive landscape but also dives deep into the details of customers’ lives. It integrates all your strategic, product, and research activities around the concept of the job. Everyone at the table can speak a common language. This helps avoid the so-called “stack fallacy”, which causes products to fail when different layers of an organization don’t understand one another. For example, Christensen recounts how Ford planned and within 2 years scrapped a competitor project to GM’s OnStar. The engineering stack would have “the next great thing in mobile connectivity” ( Competing Against Luck pg 171), but Ford couldn’t match the processes behind GM’s existing successful service.

I need to help distributed teams work more cohesively.

Your Struggle: “ My organization lacks a practical compass. Sure, we have brand guidelines, sales goals, mission statements, strategic milestones, and personas. But these provide little guidance on how to make daily decisions. When our teams are apart, they struggle with interpreting our principles and still don’t know what the right thing to build is. The feature list for a particular persona is constantly changing. We plan various features and get to work on on them, but we are still not be able to answer questions like Who are our customers? Would customers pay a premium for this feature today? What is our priority for next quarter?”

How Jobs helps: Circumstances are concrete, easy to understand, and are supported by empirical observations. You can rally the organization behind uncovering them. Once the job is understood, everyone can focus on getting hired for the job and doing the job well. For example, Tim Cook of TurboTax writes that jobs alignment has allowed their team to act like a “network of startups” with minimal senior-level approval, because everyone understands the customer’s end goal: “taxes are done”.

I need help to innovate in a saturated market.

Your Struggle: “ I am in a tight race with my competitors. I do your best to ask customers what they want and what their biggest problems are, but I’m having a hard time finding sparks for innovation. My competitors do something, I copy them. I try something else, they copy me. I’m not sure if I’m asking the right questions. I don’t know if the big thing we’re working on now will really work out until we do it and can show it to customers. There’s always the risk of wasting time and resources.”

How Jobs helps: Jobs redefine your competitive landscape, helps you re-frame your organization’s mission, and inspires ideas to restructure, augment, or even replace your existing offerings. One catering company, for example, discovered it was actually in the business of building relationships, which allowed it to shift from delivering food to inviting corporate clients to cook and socialize in their kitchen.

“When competitors successfully enter markets that seem closed and commoditized, they do it by aligning with an important job that none of the established players has prioritized.” (pg 143) In fact, I would argue, the more homogeneous and saturated a market, the easier it is to stand out and charge a premium. That is why you can buy furniture anywhere, but there is only one IKEA.

I need help to elevate my organizational role and design practice.

Your Struggle: “ As a User Experience Designer, I don’t have a seat at the table. Or rather I have the seat but struggle with convincing stakeholders about the value of design thinking. I’m not in a position to directly impact business and product strategy, so everything I do is reactive.”

How Jobs helps: Jobs will give you the language to explain how business decisions, product roadmaps, and user research are intrinsically connected. As an Experience Designer, you can own the “customer-centric” practice across all levels of the organization. Instead of injecting empathy into your process, you can frame empathy as a crucial starting point. Jobs ties in very nicely with techniques like service blueprinting and customer journey mapping. Personas can be modified to be less reliant on demographics — the circumstances will convey to everyone what needs to be build, while demographics might affect how to market it. User Stories for Agile development can be augmented with situational context.

These are just some of the key jobs that Jobs to Be Done can fill.

What is a job?

A job is the progress that a person is trying to make in given circumstances. Not everything that motivates people is a job. It is not a general want or need, nor a technical requirement.

“A well-defined job offers a kind of innovation blueprint”, writes Christensen. No one walks around thinking “This is the job I’m hiring a product for”. But once you understand someone’s job to be done, it becomes obvious how to provide an experience for which customers will gladly pay a premium and which your competitors will find difficult to emulate.

Here are basic rules of thumb for articulating jobs:

1) A job is typically not a one-time event, nor is it a general want, preference, principle, or adverbial quality like “convenience”. A job arises in particular circumstances due to a recurring struggle or unmet aspiration. For example, “I want to have more fun” is not a job, nor is “I hate driving”. But “Keep me entertained and help me recover the lost time when I drive long distances” is a job. It’s not a sound bite. If you need a paragraph to describe the job clearly that’s fine.

Rule of thumb: if a thing is always true, if there’s never a situation in which a customer does not want that thing, then it’s probably a job.

2) A job is something that can be fulfilled by products across categories. For example, “Make it easier to maintain long-term relationships with distant relatives” is a job for which I may hire Skype, a long-distance calling card, a post card, a photography sharing site, an airplane ticket.

Your solution will typically compete with existing imperfect solutions as well as non-consumption. For example, many people maintain passive relationships over Facebook and complain about it all the time. On the other hand, some people delete their Facebook account and end relationships. That is a solution as well.

3) A job has social, emotional, and functional dimensions. For example, in Clay Christensen’s famous “Milkshake Story”, parents hired a milkshake around noon when they were with their kids and needed an easy and inexpensive way to say ‘yes’ to pacify them and act the nice parent. Solutions can also have added dimensions like prevention or dealing with consequences. Some aspects of a job can be satisfied with a product, others with a service.

Note that negative jobs are also possible. For example, Christensen gives the example of night-time flu syrup for kids. Its negative job is “Spare me from having to take my kid to the doctor right now”.

Here’s an example of a job and its context from a frustrated customer, who is a sales manager (from page 33 of Competing Against Luck):

Circumstances: “It seems like every week, another one of my guys is giving notice because he’s burned out and I’m spending half my time recruiting and training new people.”

The progress I want to achieve (job): “I want the sales force I manage to be better equipped to succeed in their job so that the churn in staff goes down”.

Obstacles: “I’ve tried everything I can thinking of to motivate my staff: bonus programs for them, offsite bonding days, I’ve bought them a variety of training tools. And they still can’t tell me what’s going wrong.”

Imperfect solutions: “I have to spend time making sales calls myself- and I don’t have time for that!”

This is just the starting point. We need to dig deeper into when the problem started and what else the manager knows.

We should also talk to current and past employees to uncover their jobs to be done. What are they hiring the employer for and what is not working? They may be quitting for different reasons, which takes us to the next topic.

For a detailed case study on how to use Jobs to understand the circumstances of customers and build a marketing program around it, see this great case study shared by Katelyn Bourgoin:

If you’re in tech, check out Ryan Singer’s jobs-inspired approach to defining product features: In his mind a feature definition consists of an “input situation” (circumstances), an “output situation” (struggle, impact/job), and the “function” (solution) that we have to solve to connect the two.

The average customer doesn’t exist

When we uncover circumstances behind buying decisions, it becomes clear that one-size-fits-all products have the weakest competitive position. Such a product doesn’t do any one job very well, and it’s easy for competitors to copy.

“Purpose brand, when done well,” writes Christensen, “ provides the ultimate competitive advantage. Look no further. Don’t even bother shopping for anything else. Just hire me and your job will be done. “ (pg 146)

You should try to optimize your product and delivery for the job it’s being hired to do.

In Christensen’s Milkshake example, there was a cohort of morning commuters who hired a milkshake for their long commute. Next, there was a distinct cohort of parents with kids who hired a milkshake in the afternoon. Two completely different circumstances that entail very different marketing and product design decisions.

The morning commuters want a big, thick milkshake in any flavor, as long as it lasts the drive and won’t leave them hungry. Parents with kids in contrast want a quick break; a toy and a small, healthy milkshake is might fit the bill.

Why the business world needs Jobs

About 90% of all business ventures fail, from restaurants to high-tech startups.

A big reason for this is companies believe their technology or subject matter expertise or insights from proxy users make them exceptional. But at the end of the day, they make decisions without the information required to predict success.

But it’s worse than that. The 10% that survive are not necessarily thrivin g or reaching their potential.

Peter Drucker famously said that customers don’t buy what businesses think they’re selling them. That is to say, I believe the vast majority of products and services in the market are just good enough. They don’t excel at their job and are all vulnerable to disruption from new entrants that can do a particular job really well.

Putting jobs to be done into practice

Implementation of Jobs Theory unfold in 3 phases:

1) Uncovering the Job Spec

This is the process of finding customers, screening, and interviewing them. You then analyze the results using some form of affinity mapping to discover themes, groups of similar circumstances, and finally jobs.

2) Creating the Desired Experiences

This is the process of building products and marketing strategies with the circumstances and jobs in mind.

3) Integrating Business Processes Around the Job

This is the process of structuring internal processes to get efficient at doing the job and measure how you’re improving customers’ lives.

The story of why

Jobs practitioners are always talking about Jobs interviews and how challenging they are to conduct.

The goal is to understand the customer’s circumstances, so we can predict buying behaviour. This means talking to dozens of customers who have recently purchased a product or are currently considering. You can’t guess jobs by brainstorming internally. Industry insights from advisors and subject matter experts are not the kind of detailed information you need to uncover jobs, as we shall see.

The story of why “ is a term that I think suits the goals of Jobs practice very well. It’s not just about why, but the whole story. You need to understand people’s motivations, the social and emotional context, and the entire history of their struggle, including obstacles they’ve encountered and trade-offs they are willing to make. Christensen compares the process to shooting a documentary film. I think it’s also a lot like therapy. It entails a lot of persistently probing questions.

Bob Moesta’s team share the transcript of an interview with a camera customer here:

I analyzed this and other interviews and extracted 15 interview best practices:

The timeline of a purchase

A Jobs interview aims to map out the full timeline of a recent purchase. This timeline has several key milestones:

1) First Thought (or stimulus)

This is the first time the thought arose that I need a better solution. The interviewer will typically dig to get back to the details of exactly when and why this first thought occurred. What day was it? What was the weather like? Who were you with? and so on. The idea is to help a person recall their exact thinking in that moment.

2) Little Hire (Google calls this First Moment of Truth)

This is when the customer decides to stop shopping around and try it.

3) Big Hire (Google calls this Second Moment of Truth)

This is when the customer actually experiences the product and makes it a part of their life.

Google also introduced a step between 1 and 2, which they call Zero Moment of Truth. This is where a customer conducts research and reads product reviews from those who’ve already used the product (Source: Mapping Experiences by Jim Kalbach).

2020 Update: The customer timeline as the basis of sales, marketing, and cx/design/product work:

The forces

Jobs practitioners are especially interested in “switching” behavior and “trade-offs”. In Jobs language, for something to get hired, something else must get fired.

To model this tension, Jobs practitioners often map the forces, two conducive and two opposing the switch:

Interviews should help reveal the action of each of these forces in a customer’s life.

People often stick with imperfect solutions, because they’ve adopted comfortable compensating behaviours. They sometimes don’t even realize it.

To change this behaviour, a solution not only needs to solve the customer’s current struggle much better, but something about the change must be alluring, and moreover switching must be easy, and any unknowns and potential risks should be addressed.

This makes “impulse” purchases fascinating to Jobs practitioners. Interviews often reveal that an impulse is not an impulse after all but the culmination of a long decision-making process.

For an example, Bob Moesta and Chris Spiek share their mattress impulse buy interview at


I hope this has given you a sense of what Jobs to Be Done is all about. In a nutshell:

  • Focus on speaking with customers to understand their triggering circumstances (the struggling moment).
  • Dig back to the first thought and uncover emotional and social factors.
  • Target your product or service at the circumstances, not demographics.
  • Consider what else you might be competing with outside your product category.
  • Consider the obstacles, forces, and acceptable trade-offs in your marketing.

Next Recommended Reading

Bob Moesta’s Demand-Side Sales 101

This was originally published on LinkedIn.

Designer & Strategist