Jobs-to-be-done theory and experience design

Many focus on their immediate competitors and not on the products and services which customers actually see as alternatives - Philip Morton investigates.

A business's competitors are not just other similar companies. They can also be competing with the products and services which customers actually see as alternatives.

One idea of why this happens, and how to avoid doing the same, is the ‘jobs-to-be-done’ theory. This school of thought was developed by Clay Christensen of Harvard Business School and Bob Moesta of the ReWired Group. The theory is popular amongst those working in business strategy and product innovation, but I think it applies equally well in the field of experience design.

Jobs in people’s lives

Put in its simplest form, jobs-to-be-done theory asks the question: “for what job are people hiring a product or service to do?”

This is useful for two reasons:

One of the most succinct examples of this thinking comes from Theodore Levitt: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

Organisations need to align themselves around the jobs customers have in their lives (the quarter-inch hole), not the products that they’ve always sold (the quarter-inch drills).

Jobs-to-be-done in the photography business

Consider the job of capturing and sharing memories. Since man first walked the earth, we have been recording moments in our lives for posterity. For thousands of years, people had no easy way to do this unless they were a skilled artisan, were wealthy enough to hire one, or had time to learn their craft.

When Kodak made photography accessible to a mass market, that all changed. For the last 100 years, people have hired the camera to do this job because it offers a cheap, reliable and accurate way to capture and share memories.

That’s beginning to change though. The most popular devices on photo-sharing website Flickr is now smartphones, while point-and-shoot camera sales are tumbling. This isn’t because people have stopped wanting to capture and share memories, but that they’re hiring something different to do it.

Smartphones may not take the best photos, but people always have them on their person and they make sharing photos with friends easy.

Camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon have been concentrating on improving the quality of the image capture, missing out on the sharing part of the job. Thus even though smartphones take comparatively poor images, they’re preferred over cameras because they better serve the job of capturing and sharing memories.

Jobs-to-be done in financial services

Of course this isn’t the only industry in which organisations focus too much on one-upping each other’s products, only to miss the wider picture. In financial services, one of the jobs that people have in their lives is to grow their money, which they typically do by saving or investing.

Yet in our research, one of the most common things we find is that consumers don’t understand investments. As a result, they often don’t think of them as something which can be hired for the job of growing their money. All too often they choose savings or property instead, where growth doesn’t always beat inflation.

Banks spend a lot of resources on improving their investment propositions and services, but fail to address this lack of consideration. Instead of simply focusing on creating the best fund-trading platforms and having the lowest fees, organisations should seek to educate consumers and create products which cater for those with little investments knowledge.

By better serving the underlying job-to-be-done, banks will be able to increase their investments earnings. If they continue as they are, they’ll leave the door open to competitors to fill the gap.

Putting it into practice

The first step to putting this theory into practice is to identify customers’ jobs-to-be-done by conducting research or by reviewing existing insight. From there you can begin to understand what customers see as valuable for those jobs-to-be-done and what the alternatives to your product are. These insights can then form a basis to further explore customer needs and motivations for both tactical and strategic work.

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