What Jobs-To-Be-Done taught me about our users, our product and our company

Surfboard shaper in shaping bay
One of our users at work — a shaper in his shaping bay

 

If you want to understand why your customers buy and use your product or why they don’t, I strongly recommend Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD), a theory of customer motivation. Alan Klement’s “When Coffee and Kale Compete” (available for free as pdf) is an excellent primer on theory of JTBD. Besides the theory, “JTBD” also describes what you are investigating. Here is a description from Alan’s book of what a JTBD is:

 

JTBD is a struggle someone has to make life better. Someone has a JTBD when he or she wants to make an improvement but doesn’t know how. When that person finds and can use a solution to make that hoped-for improvement, there is no longer a JTBD.” Alan Klement, ‘When Coffee and Kale Compete’

The theory of JTBD can best be learnt by applying it. So, when, in October last year, I joined a small startup in Portugal that has been building Shaperbuddy, a solution for surfboard manufacturers, I interviewed twenty existing and prospective users of our product applying JTBD thinking. Due to logistical challenges, I could only visit a small number of users to speak and observe them in their natural work environment which I recommend doing.

I set out to learn about our users’ actual behaviours (what they really do vs. what they say they do) and their struggles at work in order to understand what jobs they are hoping to get done with our product. Equipped with this knowledge, I thought, our team would be able to become better at having conversations with our users and become better at making decisions about our product development and marketing.

The following outlines what I learnt through JTBD-based interviews and observations:

1. We are in the business of helping our customers become better surfboard manufacturers

The biggest learning has been that we are not simply providing a cloud-based “one-stop management tool for the Surfboard Manufacturing Industry” as we currently say on our website, we are in the business of helping our customers become better surfboard manufacturers. This is the high-level job that the business owners, i.e. the people who are paying us, are using our product for to get done.

This is game changing in my opinion. We must understand that we are more than a technology company that builds an IT solution for people producing and selling surfboards. We are a company that is responsible for humans who are struggling and who are looking at us to help them become better. This is going to be a cultural change that will take time, especially for team members who are used to thinking that more features are the answer to our users’ problems and requests. As a team we must learn to think every day how we can empower our users to solve their struggles through our product and thus make their lives better.

2. Making progress is an ongoing journey

My interview data suggests that, just like learning to become a better surfer, becoming a better surfboard manufacturer is an ongoing journey. At a high level, this journey can be described in 3 stages. Leaning on surfing language, the 3 stages are:

1st stage: “Paddling” (Turning professional)

2nd stage: “Pop-up” (Surviving)

3rd stage: “Riding the wave” (Scaling)

 

The above graphic is simplified. The journey to become better is not as linear as it looks. Each stage comes with its own challenges and jobs, and it can take a surfboard manufacturer many years, even decades, to progress from one stage to the next.

The initial stage, “Paddling”, is about transitioning from a beloved hobby (shaping and surfing) to a full-time profession. There are plenty of jobs that the “surfer-shaper” needs to get done to make this happen, e.g. acquiring more customers ordering boards, and there are many hires to resolve these jobs, e.g Instagram, Facebook or speaking to surfers on the beach. This is when our product first becomes attractive to surfer-shapers because they believe that with a product that helps them “get organised”, they will be able to enjoy more shaping and surfing whilst also getting the “office management job” done.

In the 2nd stage, the “Pop-up”, the “one-man show” has grown into a surfboard factory with a small number of in-house staff and contractors who do discrete production work steps assigned to them. As the business grows, new problems arise. In particular, keeping up with the increasing demand for boards and their timely delivery to customers becomes a problem. This is when they need solid surfboard production management. They hire various solutions for resolving this job from Excel spreadsheets to capture and track board orders to employing a dedicated Production Manager. Interestingly, the surfer-shaper who started the business, has now hired their wife to run the “business side of things” so that they themselves can continue to shape, surf and promote their brand.

Surfboard manufacturers in the 3rd stage, “Riding the wave”, are keen on scaling their businesses and selling surfboards in large quantities in the hope of becoming the world’s number 1 brand for surfing. Larger factories are strategically placed in several locations around the globe to satisfy demand. A dedicated General Manager and Sales team are in place managing large retail and distributor accounts. The factories enjoy a steady stream of board orders from their website and retail and distribution partners.

At this Scaling stage, surfboard manufacturers are facing a new set of problems: they struggle with reporting on sales, forecasting for the next financial cycle, inventory management and selling wholesale to distributors and retailers without direct intervention from the Sales team. Revenue management and enabling distributors and retailers to place large orders for surfboards and accessories directly from the available stock are all good potential hires for this new JTBD, “riding the wave”.

3. Appreciate where to stop

Over the last 5 years, our product has grown into a behemoth of an application that could easily stand up to enterprise-level ERPs. Knowing that our users are going through at least 3 stages with changing jobs is telling us that a complex, one-size-fits-all solution that wants to be a production management, accounting, CRM, POS and e-commerce solution will only serve a small set of users. We need to learn not to attempt to solve the entire working day of our users through our product and appreciate where our product’s jobs stop. Why would we want to compete in areas that we have little expertise in and that have well defined market leaders already anyway?

4. New opportunities are right in front of you

I found out through my research which features do and do not help our customers get their jobs done, i.e. help me turn professional or help me become the world’s number 1 brand for surfing. We can use this insight to make decisions about which features to improve or kill. Knowing our users’ jobs can also help us explore new product opportunities that will enable them to make the desired progress as they move through the stages.

 

Table created in Excel showing how a Production Manager struggles with scheduling new and existing surfboard orders. This could be a new opportunity for us.

Furthermore, since we know our users’ jobs change throughout the stages, we should consider breaking the product down into separate sub-products, like Intercom did, that address a specific job for a stage and work together as a system. These sub-products could be priced separately and bundled up. Essentially, we could tap into new revenue.

Another benefit of JTBD-based research is it uncovers the “forces” that are at play when users are looking to make progress. These forces are the problems with and the attractions of our product, our users’ anxieties and their existing habits. For example, for prospective customers in Australia and the US, our biggest markets, it is a real concern that we are not in the same timezone. They need to be assured that a small team in Portugal that is 11 hours behind and 8 hours ahead respectively, is available to quickly resolve product issues that can potentially stop the board production. To reduce this anxiety, we have to adapt our support team’s availability.

Jobs-to-be-Done forces diagram by Margaret Wilkins

Understanding the forces will not only help our team have more productive conversations with our existing and prospective users, it will also allow us to create marketing copy for our website and promotional materials that speaks directly to what our users value (making progress) and not only to what we value (our product’s features).

5. Your competitors are not your competition

Competition is defined in the minds of customers, and they use progress as their criteria.” 

Alan Klement, ‘When Coffee and Kale compete’

When speaking with our users, I learnt a lot about the solutions they stopped hiring once they started using our product and the solutions they would fall back on when they struggled with our product. These are predominantly Excel and Google Sheets to keep track of the board orders and payments as well as pen and paper to log work (typically factory workers get paid “piece rates”, i.e. by work step completed).

Knowing our real competition, especially compensatory behaviour and existing habits, also helps us understand where our product falls short and where we need to improve. For example, scanning QR codes printed on the production order form, i.e. the A4 paper that details the surfboard’s specification, is a smart technology solution, but if pen and paper do a better job for workers to record their completed work step so that they get paid, then they won’t fire pen and paper.

What’s next:

The interviews uncovered plenty of issues that our users have with our product because because they simply cannot get some of their jobs done due to technical bugs and usability and workflow issues that stem from thinking with an IT mindset. However, I also learnt that our product is helping them getting some of their jobs done pretty well today. In fact, in some instances, our product has become business critical and is the de-facto solution used to run the business. Without our product, these businesses would fail.

This knowledge gives us confidence in our product and boosts overall morale, especially at a time when all we seem to be doing is fire-fighting.

My research is just the beginning of our JTBD journey, and there is still plenty to explore. For now though, we have gained invaluable insights into our users’ lives, their struggles and motivations that can lead us in many ways. We must now incorporate this new knowledge into how we think and work if we want to deliver solutions that really help our users achieve their desired progress. Surf’s up!

Recommended resources to get started with JTBD:

When Coffee and Kale compete” – Free ebook (pdf) primer on Jobs-to-be-Done based on interviews with practitioners, including a short history, practical case studies and suggestions on how to get started with Jobs-to-be-Done
Intercom on Jobs-to-be-Done” – Free ebook (ePub, mobi and pdf) compilation of lessons learnt from using Jobs-to-be-Done at Intercom
JTBD.info – A compilation of Jobs-to-be-Done articles on Medium
Learning Jobs to Be Done From 5 Super Bowl Ads” – An explanation of Jobs-to-be-Done using 5 Superbowl ads
Unpacking the progress making forces diagram” – Understanding the forces that are at play when a consumer seeks to make progress (by purchasing a product or service)
Jobs-to-be-Done Quora feed

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