At the most basic level, Jobs to Be Done — or JTBD, as it’s often referred — is a framework that helps product and marketing teams understand why consumers buy the products they do. The idea behind this theory is that people don’t really buy products, they hire products to do a particular job.
What Is Jobs to Be Done?
People aren’t actually buying a bar of chocolate and nougat when they buy a Snickers, they’re buying an end to the rumbling stomach of hunger. Snickers performs a job: to satisfy you when you’re hungry and give you energy to help you feel like yourself.
What Is Jobs to Be Done?
Bob Moesta, the president and CEO of Re-Wired Group, helped develop the JTBD framework alongside innovation strategist and former IBM senior product planner Tony Ulwick and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.
After looking at the research and innovation process of Toyota manufacturing models in the mid-1980s, the three found that motivations for buying products are often elusive, and less about the product than you might imagine.
“The theory itself,” Ulwick explained, “is based on this notion that people buy products to get a job done. So instead of studying the products and asking people what products they want, let’s talk to them about what they’re trying to achieve and how they measure success at each step of the way.”
Knowing what these “jobs” are — in essence, people’s desires — is the first step toward meeting customer demand in the right way.
Or as Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt famously put it: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”
The framework can also help create products that are not only functional for consumers, but that fulfill deeper emotional needs — like feeling relaxed.
The History of Jobs to Be Done
Let’s go back to 1985, when Moesta was a Michigan State University engineering student interning at Ford Motor Company. He and an engineer named W. Edwards Deming went to Japan to study product development. Specifically, they went to figure out why Toyota had surged ahead of Ford on quality assurance and failure prevention.
Back then, the prevailing wisdom in research and development — the importance of listening to the voice of the customer — didn’t make much sense to Moesta. A customer might know that their steering wheel was too stiff. But how that translated into designing a drivetrain and assembling it on the manufacturing floor was much hazier.
A Japanese manufacturing method called “Quality Function Deployment,” developed by Mitsubishi shipyard worker Yoji Akao in the late 1960s, helped Moesta realize the importance of understanding the customer’s needs. The model was designed to funnel customer feedback to the technical specifications of a product.
Moesta was also influenced by the Kano model, a product development and customer satisfaction tool developed in 1984 by Tokyo University of Science professor Noriaki Kano. It identifies five categories of customer satisfaction, from “dissatisfaction” to “excitement,” and weighs them against investment costs.
In the early 1990s, Moesta teamed up with Rick Pedi, and the two applied what Moesta learned from Japan to their consulting work with food and beverage companies, hospitals and defense contractors. They took the Kano and Quality Function Deployment models and identified a unifying component: the customer’s struggle. Unpacking the distinct problems people had was key to identifying and prioritizing products to meet consumer needs.
This went beyond looking at demographic data to predict what consumers want. Instead, it was about understanding people’s motivations and approaching their desires as jobs.
Why Jobs to Be Done Matters
The Jobs to Be Done framework helps to reveal a customer’s true desires and aspirations when they make a purchase, which can inform both product design and marketing.
For instance, focusing on customers’ underlying motives helps companies more clearly assess potential markets and competitors.
A cup of Starbucks coffee and a meditation app — though they appear to be very different products on the surface — may serve the same purpose. Each gives a morning commuter five minutes of peace to focus and reset. That’s how Mindy Cultra, vice president of creative analytics at The Sound, a product innovation agency that’s worked with companies like Coca-Cola, General Motors, Samsung and Visa to apply the JBTD framework in practice, sees it.
“If you focus on the motives,” Cultra said, “your possibilities and your adjacencies are so much bigger.”
“A cup of Starbucks coffee and a meditation app — though they appear to be very different products on the surface — may serve the same purpose. Each gives a morning commuter five minutes of peace to focus and reset.”
But there’s another, lesser-known aspect of the approach that’s important too: The idea that consumers are great at identifying and articulating their struggles, but have no idea what the solution looks like until they see it.
“They’re not the product planners, they’re not the scientists, the materials experts,” Ulwick said of consumers. “They can’t tell you they want a microwave [before it’s invented], but they could certainly tell you they want to minimize the time it takes to cook a meal.”
In other words, what the customer really wants may not even exist yet. Before the invention of the microwave, consumers were comfortably rooted in the notion that food was cooked on a stovetop or in an oven.
Jobs to Be Done allows companies to zoom out from a specific product or market segment and reveals the full field of possibilities. This allows for room to make products that have become nearly indispensable. How do you reheat soup? In the microwave. How do you cook a frozen burrito? In the microwave. Doing either over an open flame seems impractical now.
Why Jobs to Be Done Is Popular in Tech
Software companies have been using Jobs to Be Done for decades, taking cues from early evangelists like Ulwick, who left his role as a senior planner in IBM’s PC division in 1991 to consult companies that want to apply the theory.
Until recently, however, it was largely overshadowed by iterative, fail-fast methodologies such as agile, which are grounded in the idea that the key to competitive advantage is building products quickly, putting them in front of customers and improving them over time as user insights are collected and incorporated back into subsequent releases.
“They’re intertwining the development process with the innovation process,” Ulwick said. “What we’re suggesting is that you separate the innovation process from the development process.”
While cutting that cord may be anathema to agile purists, Jobs to Be Done, which front-loads the product innovation process, appears to be gaining traction as major players such as Microsoft, Salesforce, Basecamp and Intercom embrace it.
“What we’re suggesting is that you separate the innovation process from the development process.”
Theories differ on why tech giants are embracing the framework now, but an underlying motif seems to be that JBTD drives at something authentic in what customers actually want, and uncovers the scrappy, unbridled nature of competition. This doesn’t mean it’s just one mobile phone company duking it out against another, but a larger, shape-shifting landscape where one’s potential competitors may be lying in wait, unseen.
“Microsoft, Salesforce and others have turned to it in the last several years,” Jim Kalbach, head of customer experience at MURAL, said. “There is hype surrounding it. I don’t know whether that’s a result of agile being around so long or lean is over or what. Maybe companies are beginning to realize there needs to be something more than just who is shouting the loudest to the market.”
Todd Boes, chief product officer at the customer training software company Thought Industries, believes JTBD’s growing popularity is likely due, in part, to the convergence of the marketplace. Citing the podcast How Would You Beat as the basis for the claim, he said United Airlines suddenly finds itself competing with platforms like Zoom to provide a way for people to meet. Meanwhile, high-growth emerging markets — such as the one for licensing customer training software — are flooded with new entrants eager to win customers.
Not only can customers leave when something better comes along, but a business can miss emerging opportunities because its focus is too myopic, zeroing in on customer support tickets or user interface analytics, rather than panning out to where real disruption is taking place.
“In the days when mobile and video were emerging, those were nascent markets,” Boes said. “A lot of companies that prioritize [through sales-led or revenue-based methodologies] missed those opportunities, because those features and capabilities were not being prioritized since they represented small markets. … At Yahoo, we missed big opportunities because of the errors in the frameworks we used to prioritize.”
As more tech companies utilize Jobs to Be Done, there will likely be more products and services available that take consumer needs into account.
Jobs to Be Done Examples
Talking about JTBD in theory is one thing, but how is the framework actually used in the real world?
“How many people struggle with email?” Moesta asked. “Or, let me ask it this way, how many people don’t struggle with email? And yet the two largest [providers], Microsoft and Google, have done really nothing to help you. If anything, they’ve made it more and more complicated.”
Moesta’s firm has consulted with Basecamp for many years, and used Jobs to Be Done as the strategic framework behind its development. In an attempt to make email less of a chore, Hey flips the traditional conception of the service on its head, he said. It begins with the premise that email should be designed for receivers, not senders.
The core insight of Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, as Moesta interpreted it to me, “That your inbox is like your living room — and you don’t let everybody in your living room,” came from focusing on users’ struggles. “So how do you actually build in a way in which to only let people in who basically have been invited?” he asked.
This was a complicated technical challenge, of course, but JTBD simplified it by grouping people’s struggles into buckets of “things you need to respond to, things you want to read and receipts,” as noted by Casey Newton in The Verge.
And while there are certainly unique features to Hey — The Paper Trail for receipts and other items that don’t require immediate attention; The Feed, curated almost like a magazine filled with your favorite newsletters — these features can be directly mapped to the jobs people want to do on email. Dealing with spam, as you may have guessed, is not one of them.
Another example of how Jobs to Be Done has been used can be seen at The Sound. The brand strategy agency applied JTBD when working with two large streaming audio companies who merged. As part of a broader brand positioning and messaging campaign, Cultra said, company executives wanted to understand the human motivations for why people choose to listen to the things they do.
To identify jobs, or life situations in which people listen to various audio stimuli, The Sound conducted in-depth interviews of more than 3,000 people. They wanted to understand more than just what people listen to — YouTube videos, talk radio, podcasts, live concerts, ASMR recordings and nature sound apps — but their psychological motivations for doing so: For instance, “To disconnect and reset.”
This led to the identification of 10 different jobs in a massive U.S. market, in which users listen to an average of 50 hours of audio every week. That equates to a total of 12 billion weekly listening hours. “Those numbers are almost unbelievable, but when you define the space in that way, it totally lines up,” Cultra said.
While multivariate analysis showed factors like age or family status influenced listening behavior and device preferences, jobs to be done revealed other things, such as the share of the total available market the recently merged audio companies were capturing.
“Say 10 percent of listening hours are devoted to a particular job,” Cultra said. “Well, within that job, what’s the share that your brand has, compared to your key competitors. Which also gets you to whitespace because there may be a share of listening hours that isn’t captured by a paid service.’”
Ulwick also pointed to Strategyn’s work with Ontrack (formerly Kroll Ontrack) as an example of how to use the Jobs to Be Done framework. The data recovery firm recognized an opportunity to provide electronic discovery services for the paper-heavy legal industry. Initially, the company was focused narrowly on security measures, such as restricting access to hard drive data. The core job lawyers wanted the technology to serve, however, was to locate evidence to support or refute a case.
After defining the market around Ontrack’s legal team and this job, Strategyn conducted qualitative interviews with 40 lawyers. This formed the basis for the creation of a jobs map plotting 73 outcome statements describing how the lawyers would like the technology to serve their needs. Lawyers at Ontrack prioritized these statements to reveal 20 underserved outcomes related to e-discovery and information management during the litigation cycle.
Ontrack developed the product in response to these outcomes and, five years later, had grown its revenue by an estimated $200 million.
The Two Schools of Jobs to Be Done
There are actually two schools of thought on what the definition of a job is, Cultra said. There’s the outcome-driven approach, modeled after strategists like Christensen and Ulwick, who define a job as fairly functional. And then there’s those like Moesta and growth operations analyst Alan Klement, the author of When Coffee and Kale Compete, who define jobs through a deeper psychological lens.
Ulwick’s JTBD Model
Ulwick’s approach, which he said Christensen popularized when he adapted it and gave it the name “Jobs to Be Done” in his book The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth, doesn’t concern itself with messaging and demand generation. Rather, it attempts to distill whether there is demand for a product to begin with. To return to the microwave example:
“People are trying to prepare a meal right?” he said. “That’s the job they’re trying to get done. And we’re going to use a series of metrics to measure success on each step of the way … minimize the time it takes to complete the meal, minimize the time it takes to clean up after preparing the meal, or minimize the likelihood of overcooking or undercooking a meal.”
By understanding these job steps and where people struggle, Ulwick said, “we’re able to figure out how to create products and services that will get the job done better. So our focus is on creating products that customers want, as opposed to positioning products that are already out there.”
“So in other words, we’re not going into a market to try to understand one or two unmet needs,” Ulwick added. “What we’re trying to understand are all the needs, and that way we can figure out which are underserved, where people might be willing to pay more to get the job done better, and where people are overserved, where people are [willing] to pay less” for an inferior product or service.
In Ulwick’s model, a market is defined as a group of people and the job they’re trying to get done. This model calls for identifying the customer’s needs, measuring the needs and formulating a production strategy. Ulwick recommends this eight-step job map to help get started.
Another important aspect of Ulwick’s model is the use of surveys. Surveys help document the circumstances of customers as well as their desired outcomes from a given product or service. Using statistical analysis of survey data can help reveal market opportunities by identifying what is working about a product and what isn’t.
Moesta’s JTBD Model
In many ways, Moesta’s application of jobs to be done parallels Ulwick’s. It identifies the customer’s struggle as the lynchpin of innovation and understands the importance of making trade-offs. Where it differs is in its definition of “jobs.”
These are not just functional goals, he told Built In in 2020, but social and emotional ones as well. They are similar to the jobs Cultra refers to: using music, for instance, to “disconnect and reset.” Through this lens, a customer’s motives may be largely unspoken or unobservable, though they are still important to purchasing decisions.
The first step of Moesta’s JTBD model is to identify customer struggles. What jobs are customers trying to get done? Next, Moesta recommends targeting moments of non-consumption, these are the times in which customers want to buy a product but can’t. Think about how you can make a product more accessible, whether that is by making it more affordable or easier to use.
Moesta’s model also suggests assessing trade offs and categorizing jobs by their purpose. Assessing trade offs can be done by identifying when and where people are willing to devote more time and money into what they buy. Moesta’s model is rooted in the belief that breaking down consumer behavior into jobs to be done, distinct from demographics or personas, will help reveal which features are most essential and where it is wise to invest. Moesta is also an advocate for understanding the social, emotional, and functional context of a job in order to identify the full range of competitors and developing the right solutions.
How to Apply Jobs to Be Done
Google “jobs to be done” and you’ll find dozens of definitions. Jim Kalbach set out to harmonize them in a book called The Jobs to Be Done Playbook: Align Your Markets, Organization and Strategy Around Customer Needs. He wanted to break down jobs to be done into a modular, accessible set of “Lego-like plays” that could be adopted by a software firm, separately or together, and put into practice.
“I had been drawn to the method for a long time, but wondered if it could be applied as a proactive approach to actually ‘get shit done,’” he said, meaning getting things done on a tight budget with a lean team and short shipping runway. “I always thought, ‘Yes.’”
Create a Job Map
According to Kalbach, a logical first step to using Jobs to Be Done is to create a job map — a low-grade visualization that separates a job into steps needed for completion. This is entirely different from a customer journey map that tells a “go-to-market” story, from product discovery and onboarding to habit forming and renewal. It completely removes the product from the field of inquiry.
Let’s say a chicken is crossing a road, he explained. What is its objective? What tools does it need? How does it prepare? How does it confirm it is safe to cross? How does it make the crossing? How does it monitor its progress? Does it need to modify its course as conditions change? How does it know it has reached the other side?
Another way to understand how to apply JBTD is to think about what questions a product or service solves for a customer. Christensen previously explained that you can identify jobs to be done — or problems to be solved — by completing three key phrases:
- “Help me _____.”
- “Help me to avoid _____.”
- “I need to _____.”
Use Market Research and Set Constraints
Using market research is a key element to the Jobs to Be Done framework. But another important tip for using JTBD is setting research constraints — this is especially true for smaller companies. While a large company may do 60 qualitative interviews over a six-month period, a startup may do five or 10 interviews over a week.
Early in the process, Ulwick recommends hosting a customer immersion session: A five- to six-hour meeting where a product development team talks with four or five representative customers to determine the market, job and desired outcomes.
Know How to Talk to Customers
While jobs to be done can be an excellent framework for envisioning a product roadmap through a strategic lens, it is not for everyone. For the method to work, Boes said, it is crucial to have a product team that is comfortable talking to customers.
“This framework does not work for inside-focused, technology-led organizations,” he said. “People need to know how to interview customers in a way to pull this information out. You’re not going to just ask the customer ‘Hey, what do I build?’ You have to tease it out.”
Boes, the Thought Industry product chief, recommends books like Ulwick’s Jobs to Be Done: Theory to Practice and Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor’s The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth as guides. He also suggests testing the water with product roadmap software like Thrv, which can “generate a customer effort score” for various product features and “map customer pain points to specific job steps in the development cycle,” as described in an earlier Built In story.
“Don’t try to boil the ocean,” he said. “Start with a small customer segment and get some quick wins. Then you can continue to expand the usage.”
In the end, successfully adopting Jobs to Be Done requires a product development mindset that moves the focus away from the product itself and places it on the needs and desires of the customer.
“Jobs to be done is about doing the right things,” Ulwick said. “If we can take the guesswork out of innovation, we can do the right things — then do things right.”