What ‘job’ is your customer trying to get done?

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It sounds like the simplest question in the world. The answer should come naturally to the most junior marketer or designer in product or service companies. And yet most likely the response will reference an existing product… drill a hole, nebulise a drug, mop the floor, play a cd…, rather than the customer’s need, or desired outcome…put up a shelf, cure my illness, keep my house clean, listen to music. This seemingly small oversight can have catastrophic consequences for a long-term innovation pipeline!

The paradox, identified by marketing guru Peter Drucker is that “The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it is selling…nobody pays for a product. What is paid for is satisfaction”.

The star line-up at FEI Boston this year included pioneering innovation academics, such as Clay Christensen, successful entrepreneurs such as Netflix co-founder and home entertainment disruptor, Marc Randolph, and many other creative leaders with stories to tell from every possible market; it was an inspirational three day event. Consistent themes centred on thinking about customers, and markets in new ways, applying lean start up principles for rapid trial, failure, and iteration, and utilising multiple sources of evidence to underpin innovation decisions. An audience of ‘evidence enthusiasts’ provided the perfect context to launch CDP’s new quantitative research service, diialog™.

In his keynote Clay told his now famous innovation story, how during an engagement for McDonalds, meeting with milkshake drinkers outside drive-through fast-food venues at 6:00am in the morning caused the research team to rethink the beverage market. It was not about the milkshake; it was about a sustaining snack that wasn’t too light or too heavy, could be consumed one handed while driving and due to the viscosity, would take some twenty minutes to consume. The milkshake was the solution to the ‘job’ of having a tantalising and sustaining companion during a boring early morning commute. The term ‘milkshake’ was the only common element with another entirely different afternoon ‘job’, a busy Mum trying to placate kids after school.  This insight lead the team to define a specification for a successful smaller, less viscous new product!

With his characteristic dry humour, Clay also recounted an epiphany after a heated discussion with his wife, by applying the same principles to understanding what ‘jobs’ she had ‘hired him’ for (in their relationship), which in some instances varied significantly from those that he admitted his instinct had anticipated. Technically speaking it was a story of misaligned contextual expectations, but we were reassured, it had a happy ending!

Equally vivid was the challenging ‘job’ he threw out to the audience; ‘my son wants to furnish his empty new apartment next week’. Which brand will deliver on that aspirational outcome? Who in the audience could have escaped the ‘Ikea’ brand-mark popping into their heads to satisfy this ‘job-to-be done’?

Having applied the ‘jobs-to-be-done’ approach for more than five years to address client innovation challenges ranging from food and beverage, to lifestyle, to medical conditions, it was a privilege to lead the Chief Innovation Officer track, and hear one of my innovation heroes talk about his work and thinking.

Other highlights included Craig Dubitsky, the creative energy behind Hello Products, and co-founder of iconic lip-balm EOS, encouraging the audience to “fall in love with the problem, not the solution” and reminding us of a delightfully simple human principle so often overlooked in a world of multi-channel marketing jargon. His track record demonstrates this approach can be game-changing and highly lucrative, even in supposedly mature or commoditised categories.

Christopher Lochhead energetically dared companies to either ‘reimagine existing problems’, or ‘design new categories’, or face the consequences. The ‘energy shot’ drink was invented when category pioneer Manoj Bhargava had a breakthrough moment of clarity – that existing large volume liquid energy solutions wrongly assumed that a consumer was both tired and thirsty!  By creating a new category of low volume ‘liquid energy’ solution, the multi-billion dollar 5-Hour Energy business was born.

Finally Marc Randolph’s story had reminiscences of industry giants such as Kodak, reminding us that even (or perhaps especially) the biggest businesses in the world cannot rest on their laurels and that the future is in front of us – we just need the courage and vision to see it. When he and a friend posted a DVD in a scruffy self-addressed envelope one afternoon, and received it back, undamaged, the next day, the world of in-home entertainment would change for ever and another goliath would shortly come crashing down. Like so many infamous stories of incumbents displaced by creative, rapidly moving start-ups who care little for corporate, brand, or historic baggage, Blockbuster missed the pivotal moment to buy into Netflix. That negative engagement in the Blockbuster boardroom motivated the Netflix team to pivot, iterate their business model, and take the calculated risks that would lead to their meteoric triumph.

These successful people, among many inspirational speakers at the conference were the first to admit there wasn’t a secret to their success, all could list far more failures than victories. Despite the common perception that innovation success is a lightning strike, the core message was that risk can be managed through culture, attitude and response to risk and failure. Failure is a critical part of innovation process and those who are successful, tend to be the ones who embrace it, learn and pivot the fastest.

With Clay’s wise words in my ear and my own experience of the effectiveness of the human centred approach to our innovation, I will continue to evangelise ‘jobs-to-be-done’ as a highly effective way of providing insight which can seed disruptive and transformational new solutions to everyday challenges.

CDP’s Front End Innovation team advocate a ‘Research for Innovation™’ approach which combines evidence from many sources, with a design and technology perspective, to look beyond today’s solutions and enable the creation of new product and service experiences. If you have an innovation challenge you’d like to chew over with our team, you can reach a real person at +44 (0)1223 264428!

diialog™ is a new research service from Cambridge Design Partnership. It uses a miniaturised sensor array embedded into small prototypes, products and packaging by our model-making team to underpin our Research-for-Innovation™ activities, validating consistencies and highlighting gaps between what consumers say they do, with what their real actions reveal.

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Ben Strutt