Jobs To Be Done theory helps you to create better products

An introduction to the theory with examples and insights.

Gianfilippo Ceraselli
The Startup


If you know the term Disruptive Innovation, you owe it to its author: Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor. According to Christensen, the theory of Disruptive Innovation didn’t explain how to create innovative products. Over the years, Christensen has perfected a new theory, the Jobs To Be Done, which can be summarized as follows:

People don’t simply buy products or services, they ‘hire’ them to make progress in specific circumstances.

The Jobs To Be Done can help you to:

  • bring out the underlying needs of users;
  • identify competitors from the customer’s point of view, especially those not visible;
  • innovate products and services to solve problems that don’t have a solution yet.

People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves.

Unlike animals, we human beings are complex systems; our choices cannot be explained only from a functional point of view. For example, when we are hungry we do not just feed ourselves, we make decisions based on various functional, emotional and social factors that change according to circumstances.

Imagine choosing a restaurant. You make different choices depending on whether it is a romantic appointment, a business meeting or a family lunch: you are always the same person and yet you have different needs and expectations, so you hire the product or the service that helps you to get the job done.

The JTBD distinguishes and analyzes the dimensions that determine the choice of a consumer.

  • Main job to be done: changes according to the circumstances
    For example, when you take your boss to lunch to strengthen the relationship. Please note that the circumstances are more important than customer characteristics, product attributes, new technologies, or trends.
  • Functional aspects: the practical and objective requirements
    Eating out food prepared by experts
  • Personal dimension: how the customer feels about using the product
    Feeling satisfied and reassured by the quality of food and service
  • Social dimension: how the customer believes to be perceived by others while using the product
    You want to strengthen your image of sophisticated professional

It is essential to know the difference between ‘what’ a customer buys and ‘why’ he buys it. Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon cosmetics, used to say about his products: In the factory we produce cosmetics, in stores we sell hope.

We all aspire to improve ourselves and the quality of our lives. We shop online, so we don’t waste an hour in traffic. We decide to learn a new language to feel more secure and free when we travel.

Upgrade your user, not your product. Don’t build better cameras — build better photographers.
Kathy Sierra

Inspired by Samuel Hulick illustration

The hero is the customer, not the product

The iPhone 7 Plus was the first dual camera phone combined with software that blurs the background of portraits, like in SLR cameras. Apple advertising does not refer to technology, it tells us how we can become better photographers with their product.

Become a better photographer

In Apple commercial, the hero of the story is the user, not the product. If the roles were reversed, the message would lose effectiveness, as in this commercial.

What happens when the hero of the story is the product

Microsoft, instead of explaining how the product can improve the life of the user, takes 90 seconds (of our time) to tell how cool their laptop is.

Imagine being on a first date: would you rather see the person who, during the entire evening, describes him/herself in enthusiastic terms or would you give a second date to the one that tells you how many good things you can do together?

If you know what the user’s job is then, you will be able to identify the real competitors

A Job To Be Done is not a task.

  • The task is an action or activity (e.g. taking a picture) while the JTBD can only be described as an evolution of the consumer (becoming a better photographer).
  • The task changes more frequently over time. The JTBD remains unchanged.

Alan Klement explains very well the difference, in case you want to go deeper.

Now, imagine being a project manager. Your job is to keep everyone updated in the project. Or better, you want to be a good manager, recognized as such.

If we focus on tasks, project management apps like Basecamp have different competitors, more or less similar. If we take the ‘job’ into consideration, we will understand that Basecamp also competes with email, Slack, stand-up meetings, etc. Just as a short flight fight against a high-speed train or a video-conference.

Innovating products starting from the Jobs To Be Done.

Xerox PARC: photocopiers vs. computers

Xerox had the monopoly on photocopiers market until the Japanese began to create cheaper products. How do companies respond to a threat like this? Here are some typical answers generated by the analysis of the product and the competition:

  • Pricing leverage (reducing margins)
  • Adding new features
  • Creating a simpler product

Xerox dared to look beyond. In 1970 they founded the Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) away from the influences of the East Coast headquarter. Xerox PARC has been the inventor and incubator of many elements of modern computing in the contemporary office workplace.

People do not want to have more powerful or cheap photocopiers; they want to communicate more effectively.

If you’re wondering why there is an apple symbol on your computer instead of the Xerox logo, watch this excerpt from the Pirates of Silicon Valley movie.

Why Xerox didn’t become a leader in digital products and services

Kodak: films vs. phones

In 1888 Kodak invented a product and an unbeatable foolproof service: customers took pictures, sent the camera to Kodak, who returned it along with the photographic prints. Amateur photography was born.

A perfect example of a proto Jobs To Be Done.

In 1976, 90% of the films and 85% of cameras in the US were Kodak.

Kodak’s monopoly in 1976

In 1975 Steven Sasson, an employee of Kodak, built the first digital camera in history. In 1989 Sasson created the first digital SLR, but Kodak killed the project to avoid cannibalization of the film market.

The prototype of the first digital camera created by a Kodak employee

With the advent of digital cameras, Kodak sales start to decline. The smartphone entrance strikes the final blow. In 2012, Kodak declared bankruptcy.

Kodak declared bankruptcy in 2012

So, where to start?

Always start with people. Observe, investigate and analyze people needs and behaviors. The products that customers ‘hire’ and those who ‘fire’ tell a story with functional, emotional and social aspects. If you analyze them in depth, you will find the customer’s struggle for progress.

Changing habits frightens us, even if they are expensive, tiring, ineffective. Four forces push and pull customers away from making a purchase.

The forces that push to adopt a new solution:

  • Problem with the current solution
    What you have to do: show the issues of the current product
  • Attraction to the new product
    What you have to do: show how the new product solves the problems

The opposing forces to change:

  • Anxiety and uncertainty
    What you need to do: reassure consumers that change is quick and easy
  • Habits
    What you need to do: remove irrational ties to the current situation

This collection of Apple commercials describe very well the forces in hiring/firing a product.

Do you want to know more?

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. If you want to go deeper with JTBD I suggest these resources:

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +400,714 people.

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Gianfilippo Ceraselli
The Startup

User Experience Designer/Manager deeply passionate about the innovation of services and products.