User Experience and Jobs To be Done

In the field of UX, we’re all pretty familiar with the concept of behavioural personas, but not everyone is aware of the parallels between this and Clayton Christensen’s “Jobs To Be Done” theory which became famous in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. He explains it quite nicely in this Press Publish interview:

Here I am. I have characteristics that slot me into demographic segments. I just turned 60. I’m 6 feet 8. We just sent our youngest daughter off to Columbia. I have all kinds of characteristics.

But none of these characteristics or attributes have yet caused me to go out and, say, buy the New York Times today. There might be a correlation between particular characteristics and the propensity that I will by the New York Times – but they don’t cause me to buy it.

What causes us to buy something is that a job arises that we need to get done, and we buy or hire a product and pull it into our lives to get that job done.

What’s important is that understanding the customer (as a set of demographic attributes) is the wrong unit of analysis. It’s the job that we need to understand, because the job itself is very stable over time. If you keep focusing on the job, then you can weather through the ebbs and flows of technology as they come into your industry.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say ‘I need to get this from here to there with perfect certainty, as fast as possible’.

We all find ourselves needing to get this job done on occasion. Actually Julius Caesar had the same job to do, and the only thing he could do to get the job done was hire a horseman and chariot. Now we have Fedex, but the job itself is just the same. The way you get the job done has changed over time.

If you define your business by technology or customers (as demographics), you can get blown out of the water with regularity. And so Western Union would be hired to do this job during the time of Abraham Lincoln. They framed the business as ‘long range telegraph’, and so when the telephone came, Western Union was just blown out of the water. But if you focus on the job, then when new technologies come along you can look at them and say say “holy cow, that would let me do the job even better, so you buy into it in a way that keeps the enterprise going.”

– Clay Christensen, Feb 2013 (paraphrased and brackets added for clarity)

To elaborate, the Jobs To Be Done theory basically says that any company which describes itself as “technology X for demographic segment Y” is eventually doomed. If you tie yourself too closely to a technology, you’ll get blindsided by the next big thing. Similarly, if you define your customers by their demographic attributes, you learn very little about how you can help them better. On the other hand, if you get under the lid of the jobs they are trying to do, and understand their Psychology – i.e. their needs, goals and mental models around these jobs – then you’ve defined the problem in a way that brings the solution into focus, and it isn’t tied to a particular technology or approach.

This is what we’re trained to do in the field of UX, which is why we’re so well placed to have a seat at the product strategy table. As a UX practitioner, it’s easy to let yourself become pigeonholed as someone who just provides a tactical service like wireframing or usability testing. This is disempowering – you should think bigger, even if the people around you aren’t. A theory like Jobs To Be Done can help you bridge the gap from tactical to strategic thinking, and it can help you reframe the way you talk about your role at work.