A Framework for Understanding Human Decisions—Jobs to be Done

This following post originally written for the FullStory blog, but since I am such a Clayton Christensen fan and have blogged about this topic here in the past, syndicating the post for anyone interested.

Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and Harvard business professor, makes the case that in order to understand what motivates people to act, we first must understand what it is they need done — the why behind the what.

Christensen first articulated this idea in a 2005 paper for the Harvard Business Review titled The Cause and the Cure of Marketing Malpractice when he wrote:

When people find themselves needing to get a job done, they essentially hire products to do that job for them 

If a [businessperson] can understand the job, design a product and associated experiences in purchase and use to do that job, and deliver it in a way that reinforces its intended use, then when customers find themselves needing to get that job done they will hire that product.

Christensen’s theory has become known as the “Jobs” or “Jobs to be done” theory (“JTBD”) as it’s built around a central question: what is the job a person is hiring a product to do?

What is the job to be done?

How do you satisfy your hunger on your commute?

Professor Christensen tells a wonderful story to illustrate JTBD theory. It’s about a fast food company’s attempt to make a better milkshake. Said fast food company took the classic approach. They identified their target milkshake-slurping demographic, surveyed them about their milkshake preferences, implemented their findings, and didn’t improve milkshake sales whatsoever. What happened?

Christensen tells the milkshake story so well that we recommend you give him a listen (4 minutes, YouTube). Alternatively, the story is transcribed below.

Clayton Christensen talks about milkshakes.

We actually hire products to do things for us. And understanding what job we have to do in our lives for which we would hire a product is really the key to cracking this problem of motivating customers to buy what we’re offering.

So I wanted just to tell you a story about a project we did for one of the big fast food restaurants. They were trying to goose up the sales of their milkshakes. They had just studied this problem up the gazoo. They brought in customers who fit the profile of the quintessential milkshake consumer. They’d give them samples and ask, “Could you tell us how we could improve our milkshakes so you’d buy more of them? Do you want it chocolate-ier, cheaper, chunkier, or chewier?”

They’d get very clear feedback and they’d improve the milkshake on those dimensions and it had no impact on sales or profits whatsoever.

So one of our colleagues went in with a different question on his mind. And that was, “I wonder what job arises in people’s lives that cause them to come to this restaurant to hire a milkshake?” We stood in a restaurant for 18 hours one day and just took very careful data. What time did they buy these milkshakes? What were they wearing? Were they alone? Did they buy other food with it? Did they eat it in the restaurant or drive off with it?

It turned out that nearly half of the milkshakes were sold before 8 o’clock in the morning. The people who bought them were always alone. It was the only thing they bought and they all got in the car and drove off with it.

To figure out what job they were trying to hire it to do, we came back the next day and stood outside the restaurant so we could confront these folks as they left milkshake-in-hand. And in language that they could understand we essentially asked, “Excuse me please but I gotta sort this puzzle out. What job were you trying to do for yourself that caused you to come here and hire that milkshake?”

They’d struggle to answer so we then helped them by asking other questions like, “Well, think about the last time you were in the same situation needing to get the same job done but you didn’t come here to hire a milkshake. What did you hire?”

And then as we put all their answers together it became clear that they all had the same job to be done in the morning. That is that they had a long and boring drive to work and they just needed something to do while they drove to keep the commute interesting. One hand had to be on the wheel but someone had given them another hand and there wasn’t anything in it. And they just needed something to do when they drove. They weren’t hungry yet but they knew they would be hungry by 10 o’clock so they also wanted something that would just plunk down there and stay for their morning.

Christensen paraphrasing the commuting milkshake buyer:

“Good question. What do I hire when I do this job? You know, I’ve never framed the question that way before, but last Friday I hired a banana to do the job. Take my word for it. Never hire bananas. They’re gone in three minutes — you’re hungry by 7:30am.

“If you promise not to tell my wife I probably hire donuts twice a week, but they don’t do it well either. They’re gone fast. They crumb all over my clothes. They get my fingers gooey.

“Sometimes I hire bagels but as you know they’re so dry and tasteless. Then I have to steer the car with my knees while I’m putting jam on it and if the phone rings we got a crisis.

“I remember I hired a Snickers bar once but I felt so guilty I’ve never hired Snickers again.

“Let me tell you when I hire this milkshake it is so viscous that it easily takes me 20 minutes to suck it up through that thin little straw. Who cares what the ingredients are — I don’t.

“All I know is I’m full all morning and it fits right here in my cupholder.”

Christensen concludes:

Well it turns out that the milkshake does the job better than any of the competitors, which in the customer’s minds are not Burger King milkshakes but bananas, donuts, bagels, Snickers bars, coffee, and so on.

I hope you can see how if you understand the job, how to improve the product becomes just obvious.

Source: Clayton Christensen, YouTube

When the most direct route is the wrong way.

Christensen’s story about milkshakes implies that the traditional approach — asking a logically defined audience of milkshake consumers “What would make our milkshakes better?” — may be a waste of time.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised: this approach confuses the means (The milkshake consumers) with the ends (Satisfying hunger, boring commute, whatever job). The result is “a one-size-fits-none product,” per Christensen, that does nothing for sales.

A business that organizes around solving for the actual needs of consumers has a clear reason for being because it’s those needs — those objectives — that are driving a customer’s behavior in the first place.

Forget the needs of your consumers at your own peril.


Method to the madness.

JTBD brings to our attention something we already know: everyone has reasons for the choices they make — a need, desire, self-actualization, whatever! Shakespeare wrote about this quintessentially human insight some 400 years ago in Hamlet when he penned, “Though this be madness yet there is method in it.”

Understanding the method behind the madness is about having empathy for the user.

When it comes to building products, success requires applied empathy towards better solving needs. That’s why it’s important to question whether features we’re building or product branches we’re developing will do the job better than [something else].

If the development we’re advancing is done without the customer need in focus, we might find we’ve developed the most amazing product that no one wants. (Like the piston-powered airliner — see Benedict Evans on The Best is the Last.)

Putting Jobs to be Done to work.

Using JTBD to understand consumer needs can be as easy as asking, “What did you turn to the last time you needed to do this?” In Christensen’s milkshake story, it helped consumers to think back on a previous time they were in the same situation and needed that job done — that is, the milkshake buyer needed something to satiate their hunger and their boredom on their long commute to work.

Reflecting on the products you “fired” can help clarify just what you needed to get done. In this regard, JTBD can be used to explain how many once-successful businesses were displaced by competitors that simply did the job better. Examples:

  • Netflix doing the job of Blockbuster — “I need something to entertain me,”
  • Uber, Lyft replacing taxis (and impacting the rental car business) — “I need to get from point A to point B,”
  • Google — “I need ______” … all the things,
  • Amazon — “I need ______” … all the things,
  • Smartphones — “I need _____” … all the things!

The question, “What does our product do better than the competitors?” is at the center of a recent post by Jason Fried (Signal vs. Noise), who channeled JTBD when he wrote, “What are people going to stop doing once they start using your product?”

If you can’t answer this question clearly, could you reasonably expect a potential customer to?

While JTBD is often relegated to business discussions, it can be extended to think about just anything — your career, your hobbies, your relationships. You can ask yourself, “Why do I [X]? What is the job I’m getting done through [Y]?” Applying the JTBD frame introspectively may surprise you.

Applying Jobs to be Done to customer experience on the web.

“Way back when” we first built FullStory it was to solve an explicit job that we needed done: we needed to understand what users were doing on a site through high-fidelity session playback, down to the movement of the mouse.

That was only the beginning.

We soon realized that since we were already capturing all the data about user interactions on a web application, we could do other jobs, too.

  • We could do the job of visualizing aggregated, on-page user clicks — so we built Page Insights with Click Maps (Like heatmaps but with actionable clarity, that is, better!).
  • We could do the job of segmenting users by behaviors in order to better understand what job they are trying to do —FullStory users can now build on-the-fly marketing funnels based on specific, user-defined events with OmniSearch (e.g. find users who are referred by Google, add a product to their cart, and complete the sale).
  • We could do the job of finding where users are getting frustrated — so we started identifying frustration events. We call them rage clicks, error clicks, and dead clicks.
  • We could do the job of visualizing the data in aggregate — so we built easy-to-grok graphs that autobuild based on segments (We call them “Searchies”).

When it comes to the job of building better customer experiences on the web, there are many jobs to be done — whether it’s the jobs of designers, engineers, product managers, marketers, customer support.

We all have a lot of work to do to make the web a better place.

This post originally made for the FullStory blog. (Come find me there for regular bits like this!)

Further reading

  • JTBD has also made its way into a 2016 book called Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christensen. Also see The Innovator’s Dilemma
  • The average-driven, “one-size-fits-none” milkshake reminds us of the problem with averages
  • Everything Bagel 340 Calories, Dunkin’ Donuts ~600 calories, Snickers 250 calories, Banana ~100 calories, McDonald’s Vanilla Milkshake (M) 610 Calories

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