The Jobs to be Done approach to product development

The Jobs to be Done (JTBD) framework was originally developed as a marketing concept for market segmentation, but product companies began to adopt it as a way to think about product development.

The idea behind the JTBD framework is straightforward: people don’t buy products because they fit into consumer segments; they buy products to solve problems in their lives. Essentially, your product is bought (hired) to solve a problem (to fulfil a job).

Consequently, customers compare different product offerings using a set of hiring criteria. These dimensions tell them how well a product solves their problems, and can range from price, convenience, aesthetics, to whatever matters to them.

To improve your product, you need to find out what job it’s being hired to do, and what hiring criteria it’s being evaluated against. Then optimise your product relentlessly against those dimensions.

You don’t need to beat your competitors at everything.

Enter the JTBD Interview

To find out what job your product is hired to do, and what hiring criteria it’s being evaluated against, you’ll need to conduct JTBD interviews with your customers.

The interviews attempt to find out, in as much detail as possible, how your customer ended up buying your product. From there, you analyse and investigate why they did so.

There are 2 main reasons we first ask about the how and not the why:

  1. We tend to remember how we came to buy a product (unless it’s been a while back). So the how tends to be pretty reliable.
  2. We tend to retrospectively justify our actions with rationales, no matter how irrational they might be. The why tends to be rather unreliable.

Think of JTBD interviews like Sherlock solving a case:

  1. You first set the scene of the purchase. Where did they buy it? What day was it? What time? Who else was there? Did they also buy other things? What were they doing before the purchase? What did they do after?
  2. Then, you ask questions about the scene. Why that day and not the day before, or the day after? Why that time of the day? Did they intentionally bring their friend along (perhaps to get their opinion of the purchase)?
  3. Next, you ask them for their motive for the purchase. What made them decide to buy that product? Why did they buy it?
  4. Finally, you go back in the timeline and find evidence that corroborates with their motive. Did they plan to buy it beforehand? If yes, when did they plan for it? Why? If not, was there anything that made them buy it on that day?

Most people will tell you their reasons for the purchase before you even get to (4). But remember, Sherlock wouldn’t stop asking questions just because a suspect offers him an alibi. So take those rationales with a pinch of salt, and ask the probing questions anyway.

It’s the surprises that are most valuable in user interviews, so ask ahead even if you think you know what the answer will be.

JTBD interview questions

The questions are separated into 3 sections. It starts off with the point of purchase, then jumps back in time and works its way to the purchase.

The point of purchase

Find out, in as much detail as possible, how the purchase was made. You’ll want to reach a point where you can paint in your head the exact scene of purchase.

  1. When did you make the purchase?
  2. What time of the day was it? What day of the week?
  3. Was there any reason why you bought the product on that day/time, and not the day before or after?
  4. Where did you buy it?
  5. Was there anyone else with you? Who was it? Why were they there?
  6. Did you consult anyone for the purchase?
  7. What made you decide to buy it at that moment?
  8. Did you also buy anything else at the same time?
  9. Why did you make the purchase? What were you trying to solve?
  10. Probe on as necessary.

Finding the first thought

Find out when, how, and why your customer first realises they have a problem that needs to be solved.

  1. When did you start thinking about solving your problem?
  2. Do you remember where you were?
  3. What were you doing?
  4. Were you with anyone else at that time? Who was it?
  5. What triggered you to think about solving the problem?
  6. Probe on as necessary.

Building a consideration set

Find out what products your customer considered buying, and what criteria they had in mind to evaluate the various products. Find out what made them buy your product in the end.

  1. When did you start searching for a solution?
  2. Was there anything that triggered that search?
  3. How did you search for a solution? How long did it last?
  4. Did anyone else help you with your search?
  5. What was most helpful in helping you decide which product to buy?
  6. Have you tried any other solutions? Why / why not?
  7. How were the other solutions?
  8. What made you decide to buy our product in the end?
  9. Probe on as necessary.

Pro tip: most interviews rarely run in perfect sequence of the questions. That’s because people will often randomly remember details about a previous question/topic, or will talk about a related topic that’s a few questions down your predefined list. Using topic maps will help you deal with this.

A topic map I used for my JTBD interviews


Conducting the JTBD interviews

JTBD interviews are similar to regular user interviews. But here are some things you’ll want to look out for:

  1. Always start with the point of purchase, then go back in the timeline.
  2. Only interview customers who’ve recently made the purchase. The JTBD interview requires them to recall their purchase experience. If purchases were made more than 2 months ago, chances are their memories will be fuzzy — and so will your interview data.
  3. Keep the interview casual. You don’t want your customers to feel like you’re interrogating them for a crime. Make them feel at ease. Talk to them like a friend.
  4. Briefly explain what the interview is about. JTBD questions will sound a little weird to your customers. I usually tell them to imagine we’re filming a documentary, and we’re trying to get the scene right to understand how our customers end up buying our product.
  5. Don’t be too strict on the sequence of your questions. Customers might recall important details about their purchase when you’ve moved past that section. It’s important to be flexible and circle back to the relevant parts.

The JTBD timeline

Each interview should yield a timeline of the journey the customer took from getting their first thought about solving a problem, to actually hiring the product to solve it.

It’ll include details like:

  • When and how they first realised they had a problem. Was it a nagging backache? Was it a conversation with a friend? Was it an ad?
  • When and how they started passively looking for solutions. Did they google for solutions? How long did this phase last? How else did they try to find a solution?
  • When and how they started actively looking for solutions. What made them research more seriously? What was different about this phase of research? How long did they spend researching on potential candidates?
  • What hiring criteria they were looking out for when researching solutions, and why those criteria mattered to them. Did they care about the price? Did they look out for warrantee? Why, or why not? Was convenience important?
  • When and how did they make the purchase? What triggered their purchase? Who else did they consult before making the purchase? Was there anything holding them back from the purchase?
A simplified JTBD timeline

Analysing the interview data you’ve collected

In the end, you’ll want to know the job your product is hired to do, and the criteria it is measured against. Analysing your JTBD timelines is crucial here.

How many interviews is enough?

Patterns will start to emerge after 5 interviews. And unless your product is used for many disparate reasons, you shouldn’t have to do more than 10 interviews to get a clear picture of the job your product is hired to do.

The general rule’s to stop once the answers start to repeat, i.e. once you stop learning new things about your product or customer.

Finding the Job

This is pretty straightforward.

By the end of each interview, you should have a sense of the problem your product was hired to solve. Across multiple interviews, the problems your customers face are likely to be similar. This is the job your product is hired to do.

It’s also perfectly normal for a product to serve 2–3 jobs (in which case, you’ll probably need to conduct a few more interviews to make sure the extra jobs aren’t anomalies).

Finding the hiring criteria

This requires a little more detective work. Look out for:

  1. The reasons why your customers chose your product over other products.
  2. The things holding them back from making the purchase sooner.
  3. Specific things they were looking out for in their research phase.

Hiring criteria are often phrased as statements that maximise or minimise a certain dimension, for example:

  • minimise the [money I spend on solving the problem]
  • maximise the [revenue I get from referrals]
  • maximise the [convenience of the purchase]
  • minimise the [odds I’ll regret my purchase]

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Further reading

The best way to learn anything is to start doing it. But here are some extra reading material that can help make your first step forward a little less shaky:

  1. The Jobs to be Done Mattress Interview by Chris Spiek
    JTBD experts record a sample interview to give you a sense of how it’s done
  2. This is not a map by Intercom
    How the JTBD framework helped Intercom realise that a less accurate “map” makes for a better feature
  3. Integrating Around the Jobs to be Done by Clayton Christensen and Laura Day (paywall)
    A detailed case study about how you can apply the JTBD framework in your workplace
  4. A Script To Kickstart Your Jobs To Be Done Interviews by Alan Klement
    A great guide on JTBD interview questions, and what to look out for
  5. The jobs-to-be-done blog
    Tons of content about the JTBD framework can be found here