Jobs to be done

What “job” do customers hire your product or service to do? A lot of the time, customers aren’t actually buying what you think they are.


Let’s take Flappy Bird as an example. One job to be done — that this fiendishly difficult game did beautifully — was to provide a simple, fast mechanism to brag to others. Another game called QWOP garnered a cult following serving the very same job in the “keyboard era”. The results page for QWOP practically taunts you with a sarcastic “everyone is a winner”. Maybe part of the game’s appeal to get you to play again through reverse psychology – you’re not good enough to do any better… are you?

Flappy Bird holds less appeal for those who simply want a fun thing to do for 5 minutes, often in some otherwise “dead” time. That’s the sort of job that Angry Birds and Cut the Rope are really good at. Where Flappy Bird delivers frustration, these other games deliver early encouragement to order to get people engaged. In contrast, Flappy Bird’s exponential decay-rate and extremely-low tolerance avoids entirely the feeling of progress that comes from early and often success.

When I get on the tube I like to observe how many people are glued to touchscreen devices, playing runner games, side scrollers, puzzles and other simple, fun (or frustrating) time-fillers. In many respects these apps are not competing with Playstation and XBox, but with the free newspapers that people previously hired to kill time. (As an aside, I wonder about the effect on the profitability of the free-newspaper business model. In effect, the barriers to entry for filling people’s time have reduced, thanks to smart phones and attached ecosystems of music, books and apps).

Consider another example: Microsoft Office currently services very well the job of creating and sharing editable documents, spreadsheets and presentations. I’ve tried for years to find other tools for this, but so far nothing gets close due to compatibility issues and the network effect. Interestingly, I also use Google Docs, but in service of another job to be done, where Google Docs is superior to Office: the need for collaborative, real-time editing of documents. Crucially, this only works when the formatting and layout doesn’t matter so much. When the collaborative real-time editing is done, I tend to take the resulting text out to some other publishing or sharing medium.

In each of these cases, the successful products and services are “hired” to do something “better” than the alternatives. They might be faster, cheaper, or on some other quality dimension better than the rest. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee success. You still need a business model that supports it and a sensible go to market strategy, but failing to deliver on the job to be done will always end up in failure.

Let me finish with a quote from Steve Jobs, in response to someone insulting him over his decision to put a bullet in the head of OpenDoc:

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. And I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it.

Some people think innovation is about inventing cool technology solutions and then figuring out a way to insert it into our lives. That’s the wrong way around. The job to be done is the first thing we should seek to understand.