Implications of Jobs-to-be-done Theory on User Experience

Thoughts after reading Competing Against Luck

Recently, I finished reading Clayton Christiansen’s latest book Competing Against Luck, which lays out the Jobs-to-be-done theory (or Jobs Theory in short) in great detail. It instantly becomes my favourite non-fiction of the year (and this book too). As a graduate student with deep interests in user experience (UX) design and research, I find myself constantly making connections between Jobs Theory and UX while reading this book.

In this article, I want to share my thoughts on the implications of Jobs Theory on UX as a profession. I hope to use this article as a conversational opener to connect UX practitioners together in this discussion of applying Jobs Theory in UX. In this piece I won’t be describing Jobs Theory in detail, so if you want to know more, please refer to the book itself.

I see three main implications of Jobs-to-be-done on UX from the organizational and methodological perspectives:

UX research is important, and it has to be so much more and integrated with the organization

In UX design, we are always striving to create the delight, animate the buttery transition, and beautify the facade of the user interface. However, the truth is, it doesn’t matter how nice the user experience feels if it is not the right user experience to support the jobs-to-be-done. As UX researchers are often tasked to identify the right problem (more on that later) to solve, therefore doing the research is a critical ingredient in a good UX project.

An experienced UX researcher might say: “Identifying the jobs-to-be-done is essentially the same as identifying the right research question, right?” As a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) junior researcher myself, looking at jobs-to-be-done through the lens of academic research, there are important differences and additional dimensions to jobs-to-be-done that are particularly relevant in the industry setting. For example, in research we would consider these three factors — originality, significance, and validity- while developing a good research question.

However, defining a job-to-be-done requires a different yardstick that focuses more on stories, timelines, struggles, and context because in most cases a jobs-to-be-done can be so obvious that it immediately fails the originality test needed in academic research. The interesting thing is, often times what most academic researchers cannot see past the obviousness of a job-to-be-done is the depth and breadth it actually requires to correctly inform the specification of a job and the user experience it has to create. While we have “big data” for quantitative data, I believe we need to have “rich data” for qualitative data if we want to understand the different facets of a job-to-be-done.

Lastly, because user experience is more than just the UI, or the hardware and software, UX researchers need to integrate more tightly with the rest of the organization — marketing, sales, packaging — in order to deliver the full experience that satisfies the job of making progress in customers’ lives. What I find so interesting about the organization of Apple, which is probably the biggest proponent of good design and UX, is that it’s difficult to pinpoint a particular job position or division that is responsible for the UX of their products and offerings. I believe it is not because they don’t have a UX department; I think the reason is that every department in Apple cares about the UX of their work that it has already become their DNA. In other words, every department is a UX department (in Jared Spool’s parlance, this is known as a design-infused organization).

Persona is limited; Include stories and timelines in the UX arsenal

UX practitioners often like to capture the needs and behaviours of the target users using personas to inform UX-related design decisions. While persona is definitely useful for targeted or simple UX design tasks, it falls short when the UX work is more complicated and multifaceted; when significant tradeoffs have to be made, or more details about the experience have to be fleshed out in the process. The needs and behaviours projected by a persona is usually unidimensional; it tells you what a person would do in one situation, but not in others.

To solve this problem, the unit of analysis has to change from users (persona) to jobs (stories and timelines). Stories not only reveal the needs and behaviours that the users exhibit when they are trying to make progress in their lives, but also the contexts surrounding those behaviours. For example, who were accompanying the user when he/she did X? This person could play an important role in shaping user’s behaviours in that context. Timelines, on the other hand, inform the temporal aspect of the context, from the moment users started considering the product to the time they actually hire it into their lives.

Nuggets gathered from Stories and Timelines enrich the specifications of the job, and they provide the necessary depth to apprise different facets of the user experience.

It’s not just functional; It’s also social and emotional

In both UX and academic research, we like to frame “the questions to answer”, “struggles”, or “difficulties” as problems.

In academic research, we often encounter this question: “What is the research problem? Why is it original, valid, and significance?”

In UX and product design, we are often being asked : “What is the problem you’re trying to solve? Why is this the right problem to solve? And why our product could be the best to solve this problem?”

The problem with “problems” is that it usually connotates a functional need or issue. By using the term problems in the UX vernacular, it can make us overlook the social and emotional dimensions of a job-to-be-done, which in some cases could play a more important role in the hiring of a product.

For example, if you ask a Facebook user: “Why did you use Facebook? What problems are you trying to solve with Facebook?” The answers you would get are usually along the lines of: “Oh, I use it to connect with my friends!”, or “I use it during my commute to read interesting articles.”, and etc. Frame it in terms of problems, the answers we get are usually more functional than social and emotional. However, as most social media users can attest, deep down, the elements that bring them satisfaction and joy while using social media are more emotional and social than functional. Multiple studies have shown that we hire social media to feel good about ourselves.

Understanding the social and emotional dimensions of a job-to-be-done that has a higher emphasis on those two dimensions enables practitioners to design experience that targets and fulfils users’ social and emotional needs. When done right, this could translate into higher product engagement or a higher likelihood of getting hired. To acquire that understanding (social and emotional aspects of a job) with sufficient depth, UX practitioners need to go beyond problems during interviews to understand the users themselves and their associated struggles and aspirations. As one can imagine, such interviews can be difficult to conduct and uncomfortable for the interviewees, therefore the interviewers need to apprehend the boundaries and develop the right interviewing skills that cultivate human empathy.