Reconciling Jobs To Be Done & Personas

Posted on June 12, 2017.

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As if we needed another turf war, it seems the veteran practice of creating personas is being aggressively challenged, on a regular basis, to battle to the death with the more recent Jobs To Be Done approach. Techniques evolve regularly but the idea that one practice flat out negates the other is yet to be proven. Instead, let’s look a bit deeper into both of these practices to understand what benefits they each provide and whether or not our work requires both.

Personas have been around a long time. With their roots in advertising and marketing they are often, incorrectly, perceived as stereotypes of audience segments. As computers became more user-friendly, Alan Cooper led the way in repurposing personas as goal-directed archetypes that helped software designers understand what their users were trying to achieve while using the systems they were building.

Like any tool, personas can be used successfully and they can be used poorly. It seems that many designers (often the primary creators of personas) didn’t do their homework. They created personas focused solely on demographics rather than needs, behavioral attributes and context. In other extreme cases, ethnographic research firms were hired for lengthy field research initiatives that, at the end, yielded a robust view of the target market. The rest of the organization however, couldn’t wait for this work to be completed and so product development continued leaving the research report as an interesting artifact that didn’t affect product and design choices.

Enter, Jobs To Be Done. Conceived and popularized by Clayton Christensen (of The Innovator’s Dilemma fame) JTBD were heralded as the death knell for personas. Instead of focusing on a specific type of person, the real question we should be answering is what are people “hiring” our products to do? “People don’t want a 1/4” drill, they want a 1/4” hole” is probably the most well-known JTBD battle cry.

One of Christensen’s most famous JTBD case studies is the story of Americans buying milk shakes for breakfast at the fast food drive through window. While perhaps not abnormal for Americans to be making poor eating choices, this one truly boggled the mind at first. A thorough investigation — read: customer conversation and observation — led Christensen and his team to the “job” these folks were “hiring” the milk shake to do. Americans, on their way to work or school and running late, wanted a quick breakfast option that could be handled while driving the car and that would last the length of their commute. The variety of people “hiring” milk shakes proved, the JTBD camp argues, that focusing on one persona would not have yielded the most comprehensive solution to this business problem.

In the example above the JTBD camp claims that personas focus too narrowly on who the person is limiting the chance of a solution that benefits multiple personas from emerging. The JTBD framework, in theory, frames the problem to be solved in a broad way, agnostic of specific stereotypes, allowing wide-reaching solutions to be tested and put into market.

When done correctly, personas provide teams with direction on who is accessing our products and services and what their end goal might be. The Jobs To Be Done framework helps us frame possibilities for achieving those end goals. The overlap is where our product validation efforts should focus. There could be multiple Jobs To Be Done that may help the persona reach a goal. There may be multiple ways to optimize a Job To Be Done so that it caters to specific personas. Knowing both sides of the discussion frames the work in a holistic fashion.

To make this concrete, here’s an example leveraging a well known JTBD case study:

Customers keep coming to the hardware store to buy drills. About 50% of these drills get returned. Further research reveals that the overwhelming majority of customers returning these drills were women. The reasons for the returns were divided evenly between two categories: (1) I only needed the drill for one quick fix around the house or (2) The drill was far too heavy to use regularly.

As the owner of the hardware store, which technique would you use to solve this problem? At the very least there are two personas to consider here: the hobbyist and the serious carpenter. Their goals are different — hang a picture vs complete a series of more intensive carpentry projects. Their jobs to be done are similar — they need holes in the walls of their houses.

Using one tool or the other would create sub-optimal solutions that may not meaningfully reduce the return rate of your drills. Understanding both the context within which the drills are purchased (JTBD) and who is purchasing them (personas) allows you, the business owner, to make an educated decision about where to best spend your efforts to reduce returns. Depending on the make up and goals of your business, you may decide to focus on the hobbyists and partner with a local Task Rabbit (hired hand) type service to come out and the do the work for this persona. Alternatively, you may decide to partner with the drill manufacturer to create a lighter weight device targeted at the other persona. Without a clear view of the whole picture, you could easily make a poor or risky business decision.

Jobs To Be Done is a valuable exercise for product and service teams. Persona creation and validation is equally as valuable. Together, they make for a combined activity that paints a clear picture for our teams of who is using our product and what they’re trying to achieve. There’s no reason for them to be in conflict.

Do you use JTBD or personas? Have a preference? Let me know why.


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