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Jobs-to-be-done theory – a great approach for designers

Jobs-to-be-done theory explained in simple terms.
Image: © New Africa / Adobe Stock

What’s behind the jobs-to-be-done theory?

Although its name may suggest otherwise, the jobs-to-be-done theory has nothing to do with to-do lists. It’s more a way of thinking that should be adopted by product and service designers. Essentially, it is about asking why people buy products and services. Answering this question provides important insights for developing services and products – at a much earlier stage than other methods, such as customer journey mapping.

Key question: why do we actually buy products and services?

The jobs-to-be-done approach was pioneered by the former Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen. He used the concept to understand the actual purpose of a product or service in a human context, i.e. the situation of the consumer, and determine the value proposition of a product or service and what needs it is ultimately supposed to meet. In other words, why does someone actually take up an offer?

Christensen’s jobs-to-be-done theory works on the assumption that people purchase products and services to do a certain job. And for Christensen, it’s precisely that focus on the value proposition and customer needs that plays a crucial role. Why? Simply because there is usually more than just one obvious reason why someone purchases products or services. For example:

  • We buy groceries so that we don’t go hungry – but maybe also to have a healthier lifestyle, or we purchase vegan products for environmental and ethical reasons.
  • We buy a smartphone so that we can make calls when on the move – but usually also because we want to have mobile Internet, chat with friends, play games, etc.
  • We book an exercise class to get fitter – but also to get advice from an experienced instructor and work out together with other participants (and not alone).

The jobs-to-be-done approach splits the value proposition of products and services into obvious and hidden jobs. Obvious jobs are easy to identify and usually define the main benefit of what’s being offered. However, there are often other reasons why someone chooses a product or service. There might be additional functional reasons, or even emotional or social motives, such as prestige, might be behind it.

The jobs-to-be-done theory is about ascertaining the hidden jobs to create better products and services.

The jobs-to-be-done theory – and what a milkshake has to do with it

Clayton M. Christensen demonstrated that the jobs-to-be-done concept offers real added value to product designers through an impressive experiment: the famous milkshake experiment. On behalf of a fast food chain, he interviewed customers who had ordered milkshakes in the chain’s restaurants. Unlike typical market surveys though, the interviews weren’t about how the products tasted or their ingredients. Christensen instead wanted to know who was ordering a milkshake, why, and in what scenario.

  • He found that the majority of milkshakes were being ordered to go by morning commuters, mainly to have as a second breakfast that would keep them going until lunchtime.
  • Many commuters also simply wanted to make their boring car ride more bearable with a healthy snack. And a milkshake was the perfect size for their car’s cup holder. What’s more, a milkshake doesn’t create crumbs – in contrast to a granola bar, for example.
  • The results of the interviews opened up an entirely new perspective on a milkshake’s “jobs”. For most of the consumers, it wasn’t about drinking a sweet dairy beverage at all. Simply having a healthy snack in peace to avoid getting bored during their morning commute was what really mattered.

The fast food chain’s product developers immediately responded to the findings by prolonging the drinking time with narrower straws and additional pieces of fruit. The cup size was also adapted to the size of a car’s cup holder. Last but not least, a self-service lane for milkshakes was introduced to make it even easier for commuters to place their morning order. The outcome: the fast food chain was able to significantly increase its milkshake sales.

The jobs-to-be-done approach as a success factor

When you consider the jobs-to-be-done theory based on the example of the milkshake experiment, it is clear that if you try to understand the situation of the consumer of a product and its value proposition, you can devise much more efficient solutions. Product and service designers should always keep this aspect in mind during their work and not just focus on sociodemographic data. Qualitative data, surveys, and target group interviews are helpful for better gauging the needs of consumers and thus creating better products and services.

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