You can learn a lot about consumer behavior by studying milkshakes

Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and Harvard Business School professor, makes the case that in order to understand what motivates people to act, we first must understand what it is they need done — the why behind the what.

Christensen first articulated this outcome-driven innovation in a 2005 paper for the Harvard Business Review titled The Cause and the Cure of Marketing Malpractice when he wrote:

When people find themselves needing to get a job done, they essentially hire products to do that job for them ...

If a [businessperson] can understand the job, design a product and associated experiences in purchase and use to do that job, and deliver it in a way that reinforces its intended use, then when customers find themselves needing to get that job done they will hire that product.

Clayton Christensen, Photo by Betsy Webber, Shared via CC2.0

Christensen’s theory has become known as the “Jobs” or “Jobs to Be Done” theory (“JTBD”) as it’s built around a central question: what is the job a person is hiring a product to do?

What is the job to be done?

How do you satisfy your hunger on your commute?

Professor Christensen tells a wonderful story to illustrate JTBD concept. It’s about a fast food company’s attempt to make a better milkshake. Said fast food company took the classic approach. They identified their target milkshake-slurping demographic, and sent researchers to understand their milkshake preferences, implemented their findings, and didn’t improve milkshake sales whatsoever. What happened?

Christensen tells the milkshake story so well that we recommend you give him a listen (4 minutes, YouTube). Alternatively, the story is transcribed below.

Clayton Christensen talks about milkshakes

We actually hire products to do things for us. And understanding what job we have to do in our lives for which we would hire a product is really the key to cracking this problem of motivating customers to buy what we’re offering.

So I wanted just to tell you a story about a project we did for one of the big fast food restaurants. They were trying to goose up the sales of their milkshakes. They had just studied this problem up the gazoo. They brought in customers who fit the profile of the quintessential milkshake consumer. They’d give them samples and ask, “Could you tell us how we could improve our milkshakes so you’d buy more of them? Do you want it chocolate-ier, cheaper, chunkier, or chewier?”

They’d get very clear feedback and they’d improve the milkshake on those dimensions and it had no impact on sales or profits whatsoever.

So one of our colleagues went in with a different question on his mind. And that was, “I wonder what job arises in people’s lives that cause them to come to this restaurant to hire a milkshake?” We stood in a restaurant for 18 hours one day and just took very careful data. What time did they buy these milkshakes? What were they wearing? Were they alone? Did they buy other food with it? Did they eat it in the restaurant or drive off with it?

It turned out that nearly half of the milkshakes were sold before 8 o’clock in the morning. The people who bought them were always alone. It was the only thing they bought and they all got in the car and drove off with it.

To figure out what job they were trying to hire it to do, we came back the next day and stood outside the restaurant so we could confront these folks as they left milkshake-in-hand. And in language that they could understand we essentially asked, “Excuse me please but I gotta sort this puzzle out. What job were you trying to do for yourself that caused you to come here and hire that milkshake?”

They’d struggle to answer so we then helped them by asking other questions like, “Well, think about the last time you were in the same situation needing to get the same job done but you didn’t come here to hire a milkshake. What did you hire?”

And then as we put all their answers together it became clear that they all had the same job to be done in the morning. That is that they had a long and boring drive to work and they just needed something to do while they drove to keep the commute interesting. One hand had to be on the wheel but someone had given them another hand and there wasn’t anything in it. And they just needed something to do when they drove. They weren’t hungry yet but they knew they would be hungry by 10 o’clock so they also wanted something that would just plunk down there and stay for their morning.

Christensen paraphrasing the commuting milkshake buyer:
“Good question. What do I hire when I do this job? You know, I’ve never framed the question that way before, but last Friday I hired a banana to do the job. Take my word for it. Never hire bananas. They’re gone in three minutes — you’re hungry by 7:30am.

Fun facts about the above foods: (1) The banana has the “lowest calories,” but the Snickers bar is in 2nd place; the medium milkshake is the most calorically dense, tied with the donuts (2) The back of the Snickers bar boldy says, “SATISFIES” — now, why would they say that?

“If you promise not to tell my wife I probably hire donuts twice a week, but they don’t do it well either. They’re gone fast. They crumb all over my clothes. They get my fingers gooey.

“Sometimes I hire bagels but as you know they’re so dry and tasteless. Then I have to steer the car with my knees while I’m putting jam on it and if the phone rings we got a crisis.

“I remember I hired a Snickers bar once but I felt so guilty I’ve never hired Snickers again.

“Let me tell you when I hire this milkshake it is so viscous that it easily takes me 20 minutes to suck it up through that thin little straw. Who cares what the ingredients are — I don’t.

“All I know is I’m full all morning and it fits right here in my cupholder.”

Christensen concludes:
Well it turns out that the milkshake does the job better than any of the competitors, which in the customer’s minds are not Burger King milkshakes but bananas, donuts, bagels, Snickers bars, coffee, and so on.

I hope you can see how if you understand the job, how to improve the product becomes just obvious.

Source: Clayton Christensen, YouTube

Confusing the consumer with the consumption

Christensen’s story about milkshakes illustrates that asking a direct question—in this case, “What would make our milkshakes better?”—may be a fast way to go the wrong direction.

Should we be surprised? Are milkshake buyers nothing more than their demographics? Of course not. And in this case, confusing the milkshake consumers with what they are actually doing (Satisfying hunger, boring commute, whatever job), can result in developing “a one-size-fits-none product,” per Christensen, that does nothing for sales.

A business that organizes around solving for the actual needs of consumers has a clear reason for being because it’s those needs that drive a customer’s behavior in the first place.

The consumer is not the same as what they consume.

Method to the madness

Christensen's Jobs to Be Done framework brings to our attention something we all know: everyone has reasons for the choices they make — a need, desire, self-actualization, whatever! Shakespeare wrote about this quintessentially human insight some 400 years ago in Hamlet when he wrote, “Though this be madness yet there is method in it.”

Understanding the method behind the madness is about having empathy for the user.

When it comes to building products, success requires applied empathy towards better solving needs. That’s why it’s important to question whether features we’re building or product branches we’re developing will do the job better than [something else].

If the development we’re advancing is done without the customer need in focus, we might find we’ve developed the most amazing product that no one wants. (Like the piston-powered airliner — see Benedict Evans on The Best is the Last.)

People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!
—Theodore Levitt, Harvard Business Professor

Using Jobs to Be Done to develop products

Using JTBD to understand consumer needs might be as simple as asking, “What did you turn to the last time you needed to do this?”

In Clay Christensen’s milkshake story, that question helped consumers to think back on a previous time they were in the same situation and needed that specific job done. That is, the milkshake buyer needed something to satiate their hunger and their boredom on their long commute to work.

In many cases, it can be challenging to tease out just what customer jobs need doing. How can product teams apply the Jobs to Be Done framework to how you imagine and develop projects and vett new features?

Below are a few ways to apply the Jobs to Be Done framework.

1. The switching question

» Is your product so good that your audience would ‘fire’ their current product in order to hire yours?

Reflect on the product you “fired” before hiring the current product. You can tease out why customers choose your product or service by considering what the customer used before they switched to your product. From there, thinking about the “why” can help clarify just what job is needed to get done.

The “fired” lens in the Jobs to Be Done framework can be used to understand how many once-successful businesses were displaced by competitors that simply did the job better. Examples:

  • Netflix doing the job of Blockbuster — “I need something to entertain me,”
  • Uber, Lyft replacing taxis (and impacting the rental car business) — “I need to get from point A to point B,”
  • Google — “I need ______” ... all the things,
  • Amazon — “I need ______” ... all the things,
  • Smartphones* — *“I need _____” ... all the things!

Be kind — Rewind (to a time when that was a thing).

If the product is only an idea, you’ve got an opportunity to ask a critical question: “Is my product (or service) so good that my intended customer will stop using the product and make the switch?”

This question is at the center of a recent post by Jason Fried (Signal vs. Noise), who channeled JTBD when he wrote, “What are people going to stop doing once they start using your product?”

If you can’t answer the “switching jobs” question clearly, could you reasonably expect a potential customer to?

2. The WWYSYDH question

» What does your product or service actually do for the customer?

"What would you say you do here?" — from the classic scene in Office Space.

If you’ve seen office space, you certainly remember when “the Bobs” asked our slacker protagonist a simple question: “What would you say you do here?”

This simple, straight-to-the-point question deserves some focused attention. If you articulate all the things the product actually does for a customer, you will paint an impression that will help you tease apart what job it is your customer is trying to get done.

Be both specific and general. The details matter more than you might think. The drill makes holes. The milkshake gives you food and it takes awhile to drink. Starbucks gives you energy and it also gives you a place to go. Make a WWYSYDH list.

Contrast your list with the product’s enumerated features. Do the features you developed solve for the things on your list — the things your customers need doing?

Making an analogy to working at an actual job, WWYSYDH is the day-to-day, on-the-job stuff you do while your job title — or the prototypical resume — is like the product feature list. Build products do the day-to-day stuff and then talk about them by what they actually do.

3. The hierarchy of needs question

» Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? How does the product fill these needs?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid via SimplyPyschology.

In contemplating what your product or service actually does — WWYSYDH — go high-level and think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Christensen has written that, “With few exceptions, every job people need or want to do has a social, a functional, and an emotional dimension.”

What social need does the product solve? What emotional need is being solved by the product? How will using the product make the customer feel? While it may seem far-fetched to think of how a given product solves some intangible need of a customer, it holds up to scrutiny: customers buy products for reasons (see above) and under specific circumstances (context). Those reasons can be simple or incredibly complex — and often difficult to articulate.

Not surprisingly, the Jobs to Be Done framework can be extended to think about just anything — your career, your hobbies, your relationships. You can ask yourself, “Why am I really doing [whatever]? What is the job I’m getting done through [doing this]?”

Apply the Jobs to be Done framework introspectively and you may be surprised what you find.

Jobs to Be Done for better products

Armed with how the Jobs to Be Done theory re-frames product growth strategies around specific circumstances and customer outcome expectations, the next step is to share the theory with your team members. Expect some lively discussion and at least a few "A-ha!" moments.

If you're considering developing new products or new product features, as the critical question: what functional job will this new product or feature do for our customers?

Apply the Jobs to Be Done lens to every business decision and you'll always have customers ready to hire your product for that job.

See our follow-up post — Marketing and the Jobs to Be Done Framework

AFTERWARD » How we apply the Jobs to Be Done framework at FullStory

“Way back when” we first built FullStory it was to solve an explicit job that we needed done: we needed to understand what users were doing on a site through high-fidelity session playback, down to the movement of the mouse.

We soon realized that since we were already capturing all the data about user interactions on a web application, we could do other jobs, too. Today, we talk about and develop our product based on the jobs it does—not just as a "session replay tool." Specifically, we talk about:

The above is just the beginning. When it comes to the job of building better customer experiences on the web, there are always more Jobs to Be Done.

Further reading