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The Iceberg of Jobs-to-be-Done

Eric Portelance // 11.04.13

This article originally appeared on the Teehan+Lax blog, and has been republished here with permission.
When you’re starting to design a new product, or redesigning an existing one, the most important thing you can do is validate that the problem you are trying to solve is meaningful, important, and shared by a large enough group of people that a solution is likely to succeed in the market.

However, there are two significant challenges to overcome. First, it is difficult to find the right tools to truly understand these complex problems. Second, we have a strong human desire to conceive a highly-rationalized approach to deal with our insecurity in the face of many unknowns and perceived risks – especially when the stakes are high. These two forces often work against each other and lead to bad solutions that don’t solve real problems.

So where can we look for insights to guide us? It’s tempting to look at consumer market research segmented by demographics, psychographics, or technographics for data points that confirm or refute our hunches. There’s plenty of this out there, and it has been gathered and analyzed by smart people working at reputable companies.

It’s also tempting to look at competitors in a market and try to reverse-engineer their success, or classify them on some spectrum of qualities that help us identify arbitrary attributes that could differentiate us (“We’re like the Tumblr for the knitting community!”).

In the case of an existing product, you could also look at your analytics and hope the data will point you in the direction of the next big thing you should do. Finally, it’s easy to come up with a list of ideas, features, and requests from existing or prospective customers (see: The Homer) that seem worthy of building.

This type of data can make us feel more confident about our decisions and steer us down a path toward building a solution that is clearer in our minds. But how do you make sense of it all and ensure you’re laser-focused on solving the underlying problems people have in their lives instead of just the thing that came to mind today? And how might we identify unmet needs (non-consumption or hacks) from this data? We can’t.

The problem is that this data is almost always a lagging indicator of behaviour. Even when we aggregate it all together and look for trends, we are reporting something that has already happened, but that doesn’t mean we understand why it happened. Yet the why is the single most important thing to identify in product design. “Why does this exist?” “Why might someone actually change their behaviour and use this?”

The Iceberg

It is said that 90% of an iceberg is underwater. I believe the same analogy applies to the insights we use to focus our creative energy when designing a product. It’s easy to find the lagging indicators – the 10% that is above water – but much harder to find the leading indicators of potential customer behaviour. And focusing only on lagging indicators is a dangerous blindness to have when you’re trying to find product-market fit and persuade people to switch to your product.

At Teehan+Lax, we believe that single most important thing you can identify when creating a product is the jobs-to-be-done that your existing or potential customers have in their lives. Jobs-to-be-done are what cause a customer to hire or fire a product. Finding a poorly-served job that many people critically share is the most important factor in identifying new opportunities and building disruptive solutions. These are the leading indicators of customer behaviour that help you stay focused on building the things that matter and ignoring the things that don’t.

This would suggest that most successful products are created by one of four types of people:

  1. Geniuses who have a strong internalized sense of important jobs-to-be-done. These people are few-and-far between. They are the Steve Jobs of the world. Through an incredibly prescient vision, drive, and experience, these individuals are wired to identify and build things that solve important jobs-to-be-done.
  2. People who have identified a problem they have, and decide to create a better solution first-and-foremost for themselves. By focusing on their own problems, they remain focused on what matters and have an easier time identifying other people who might share this problem and hire their solution.
  3. People who create a product and, somewhat by chance, stumble upon a compelling job-to-be-done that propels them to success. This is dangerous – especially with complex digital products. It becomes easy to misunderstand the reasons people have hired you and to blindly push your product in a direction that actually moves away from solving the most important jobs-to-be-done. Over time, these products can begin to poorly serve the market, leaving the door open to competitive threats.
  4. People who understand the importance of creating products that solve real customer problems, and have a set of tools and frameworks like jobs-to-be-done that they use to identify and validate the real human problems they’re trying to solve in the market.

At Teehan+Lax, we push ourselves and our clients to be in the fourth category. The third category is too hit-and-miss (although you can get there more reliably by building stuff quickly and validating in market), and the first and second categories are too rare.

How We Do This

The idea behind jobs-to-be-done is relatively straightforward. We’re all trying to make some kind of progress in our lives with regards to problems or jobs that we have, and we hire various solutions to solve them for us. We continue to use a solution so long as it continues to adequately address the jobs we have (whether we’re conscious of it or not).

But identifying these jobs is the tricky part. Here’s a simplified form of the methodology we use:

  1. Find people who have recently hired or fired a relevant product.
  2. Interview them to investigate what forces and factors have led to this event. Don’t spend any time talking about what they like or didn’t like about the product, what features they want to see in the future, etc. These are traps.
  3. Analyze these forces and factors to pull out and prioritize the jobs-to-be-done.

This process looks more like detective work than conventional marketing research — in large part because most of us have low self-awareness of why we ‘hire’ things. We have found it greatly outperforms conventional research approaches because it avoids the trap of looking for esoteric or abstract ‘insights,’ and instead focuses relentlessly on answering very plain questions that get to the crux of why we do what we do.

At this point, you should have a set of jobs-to-be-done that, if employed correctly, will serve as a lens through which most product decision-making can exist. If an idea or feature doesn’t clearly resolve the job in some way, it doesn’t deserve to exist or should be de-prioritized.

We believe these are the most important leading indicators, because the day you stop adequately serving these jobs, or a competitor serves them better, is the day you start losing customers.

Thanks to David Gillis and Kyra Aylsworth for providing feedback on drafts.