User, Job, and Epistemic Stories

Meag Tessmann
Feb 5, 2015 · 4 min read

USER STORY : As a [persona], I want to [action], so that [expected outcome].

JOB STORY : When [name situation], I want to [list motivations and forces], so I can [expected outcome].

Clay Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and like other business motivations, is now infiltrating the UX community. I initially found a ThoughtBot article entitled Converting to Job Stories. I didn’t quite get how this new jobs story was such an improvement over the user story structure, so I headed over to Alan Klement’s Replacing the User Story with the Job Story. I read on and encourage you to as well. [Note: Klement has posted another story delving further.]

Edit May 5th, 2015 : After publication, Alan Klement responded with some amazing feedback. He clarifies, “Christensen was introduced to Jobs-to-be-Done via Bob Moesta. Bob began working on the JTBD methodology in the 80's. He used it when he first worked with with Clay — which is where the Milkshake story comes from and how Clay was introduced to the idea.” He continues to describe how the general idea of Job Story has been developed independently by a number of parties not knowing each other — his own development was separate from Christensen, Moesta, which was separate from Intercom, who also uses a variety of Job Stories. The pure ubiquity of these formats insinuates how useful and of natural progression this framing truly is.

Many thanks, Alan!

The whole idea is to provide a greater understanding of the design problem without leading the design. Even the best designed proverbial cart works better behind the horse. By listing an action, the temptation to micromanage a designer is high. We can all easily imagine the following story, then converted to a more visceral approach.

USER : As a student, I want to click through an image carousel so that I can see many pictures of the prospective campus.

JOBS : When I’m looking at perspective campuses, I want to see what the campus looks like virtually so I can envision myself walking to class or studying on the grass.

The later is intentionally more inspiring, but you can see how tempting it is for the user story version to be the antithesis of creativity and limit design visions to often un-empathetic personal preferences. Action verbs are what job stories are trying to avoid : offering a presumed best solution.

Since Alan Cooper initiated the personas craze back in the early 80’s, they’ve become a pretty widespread tool to standardize user empathy within a project. These archetypal personas tend to be discrete. User stories have the immediate need to reference these personas. While people debate that personal stereotypes are unavoidable in persona’s archetypal development, this debate could be extended to user stories. Stereotyping generally, I’ll boldly state, is not a bad thing. Negative impacts stereotyping have in a design environment happen when dichotomies arise in personal stereotyping of a certain subset of humans. Depending on context, a ‘white american college girl’ provokes varied imagery across different cultures and times. Using a situational and motivational structure in job stories attempts, perhaps in vain, to avoid conflicting stereotypes.

I see a lot of parallels between jobs stories and the Epistemic Games Group’s research work on Epistemic Frame Theory, which is directly relevant to education psychology. Although it’s application differs from a design workflow, it’s a potentially useful lens to empathize with our users and design useful solutions. David Shaffer’s theory consists of five dimensions that can be measured over time.

SKILLS : the things people within the community do

KNOWLEDGE : the community’s shared understandings

IDENTITY : how members of the community see themselves

VALUES : the beliefs held by community members

EPISTEMOLOGY : how community members make decisions and justify their choices

Christensen’s original Job Story concept was an attempt to break away from the consumeristic bottom line that drove marketing departments’ influence on business goals. Epistemic frame theory provides a similar structure that can be used to define user motivations and behaviors through a cultural aspect. It seems natural to combine these two structures. In practice, however, I’m finding the two are not as analogous as I first thought. Since these SKIVE dimensions, as they’re called, can change overtime, this frame might be useful in defining behavioral change we, as UX designers, are eliciting from our users. My current assertion is an epistemic story is most useful to service design. The original design of epistemic frame is intended to measure change in learning and recognition of a certain academic field. This is service design! For design projects with behavioral change in mind, this frame might provide further insight, as intended with job stories.

Other potential lies in combining job stories and personas to create an epistemic frame of users. Perhaps it’s even a novel approach to just personas. All of this doesn’t seem to be a profound new view, but rather a different set of sunglasses to filter the same world in. This is a work in progress thought.

Overall, I believe jobs structure is a useful tool for teams to boost creativity and to communicate user motivations and desired outcomes while avoiding prescribed solutions. I’ll definitely be looking into Christensen’s theory further.

Originally published at on January 22, 2015.

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