How to “Know” What Your Customers Really Want?

Focus on understanding the situation that the customer wants to resolve, not the customer


Product managers are constantly told that they must “know” or understand what customers really “want” or “need”. Did they tell you how? Did they say — understand what problems customers are trying to overcome? Should you focus on understanding the problem, the customer or both?

You will be better served if they told you to truly understand what jobs customers are trying to get done.

A “job” is a fundamental problem a customer needs to resolve in a given situation.

Focus on understanding the situation not the customer. Customers find themselves in a situation, with constraints and emotions. This situation forces a customer to take a decision to hire a product to get a job done. This helps a product manager understand what causes a customer to hire a product and why. Understand their constraints while they are in that situation (like time, capability to handle complexity) and the emotions they feel as they encounter a situation (like fear, anxiety, anger, frustration). Understanding the constraints helps in shaping the solution, understanding the emotions helps in pitching the product.

Customers rarely hire a product as soon as they find themselves in a specific situation. Repeated exposure to a specific situation causes the customer to take various steps to resolve the situation. Only if the steps taken fail to resolve the situation to their satisfaction, do they decide to hire a product (or seek a new solution). Understand the various steps taken and how their situation has changed over time. What outcomes were they dissatisfied with? This helps a product manager to understand key attributes or dimensions that are important to the customer. Each attribute or dimension is a potential differentiator. Understanding these attributes helps in differentiating and positioning the product. Which dimensions are important to the customer, but poorly served by other alternatives and competition? Understanding expected outcomes helps in creating delightful experiences. How can we provide outcomes that exceed the user’s expectation?

As the situation changes, the customer experiences various “pull” and “push” forces before they hire a new product. The pull forces are various hurdles that they have to overcome — an existing habit, will the solution work for my situation, will the change make things worse? The push forces are things that lead the customer to make a decision — the current solution sucks, that product seems interesting. Understanding these forces helps in designing systems around the product. A great product takes a systems approach to resolving a situation, the “product” is just one part of it.

What are the other benefits of this approach or methodology?

Helps you focus on alternatives available to get the same job done, hence pricing risk (under pricing or over pricing) is lower. You may realize that folks, who occasionally want to work on a document across devices, may hire email to do the job for them, not your file sharing application. Customers do not think in terms of product categories while seeking a solution. You may realize that a customer uses multiple products to get a single job done

Helps you understand the key trigger points in the decision making process (or key triggers in making the “switch” from an existing solution to your solution). You may discover that folks who use email for sharing documents across devices, begin to seek out a better solution on forgetting to email the document after working on it. It helps you understand what actions a customer takes as the situation changes, like research which product to hire, seek feedback on a particular product, or actually decide on which product to hire.

Helps you keep the product simple, road map is more aligned with what customers want. You can stop adding features because the competition does. Why move to a higher pixel resolution if customers are not printing photos taken on your cameras? Trade-offs decisions are easier. You may also discover other product categories you could compete in.

Helps you market the product better. Take a look at the Amazon Dash video. Notice the number of “personas” in the video?

Summary: Using “jobs” as the unit of analysis for all product decisions will lead to building of better products and delighted customers.

If you are interested in the methodology, you can go over the excellent research and content developed by Clayton Christensen (milkshake video) and the Re-Wired Group. The Re-Wired group has a course on Udemy on Mastering Jobs-to-be-Done Interviews to help understand the real reasons why customers buy a product.

Thanks to Bob Moesta, Ravi Padaki, and Tanmay Jyot for reviewing this post and suggesting edits.