How to ask the right questions in Jobs to be Done interviews

• 10 min read

Interviewing customers can be a daunting task. This is a guide to the structure, questions and core principles of Jobs to be Done interviews.

How to ask the right questions in Jobs to be Done interviews

After running several Jobs to be Done meetups, like the one last week with Eckhart Boehme, I received a lot of questions about how to conduct Jobs to be Done interviews. I've not written much on it before because there are examples published online that are really helpful. When I was getting started, I found listening to Bob Moesta conduct a live interview about people buying a mattress very useful. There are also a lot of great resources on jobstobedone.org that are great for anyone getting into Jobs to be Done.

However, since then I have conducted hundreds of interviews myself across a number of different sectors. It's fair to say, I've experimented a lot with the interview format. You can't always follow the script when speaking to people about their lives and motivations. Going off-script allows you to collect all the nuances and complexities that get you closer to understanding the causality behind why people behave the way they do.

The purpose of this post is to outline how and why I structure a Jobs to be Done interview the way I do. I'll provide some reflections on what's worked and the kind of questions I ask. I'm not saying this is something you should copy line for line, but this is an example of the kind of questions that have worked for me.

Before you get started

Before you start you need to have a good understanding of why you're conducting the interview and what information you need to collect. There are several frameworks out there, most of them heavily influenced by Bob Moesta's Timeline for Progress and the Four Forces. Alan Klement has published his JTBD data model and  Eckhart Boehme has produced the Wheel of Progress canvas. Jim Kalbach published The Jobs to be Done Playbook this year, which I've just started reading and will review in a future newsletter.

Canvases or data models are useful for you and the team to know what kind of data you're trying to collect. They are not great for helping you structure your interview and think about the right questions to ask. This is the canvas I use, a slightly adapted version of Bob Moesta's Four Forces.

JTBD Canvas, Jobs to be Done, The Four Forces

Historically, I've used the push as a way to capture the struggling moment and the pull as a way to capture the desired outcomes. After repeated use, I've found that focusing the push quadrant on the old solution and the pull quadrant on the new solution to be more helpful. Other factors define the struggling moment; like multiple products or tools, the absence of a solution in the market, a big change in context, etc. I find it helpful to separate the pain points with the existing solution from other situational factors. It's the same with the desired outcomes. The new solution rarely helps the customer make progress on all of their outcomes. It's also highly likely you uncover related Jobs to be Done along the way. This is important to identify because bringing two jobs (not outcomes) together can be category-defining.

In my last newsletter, I talked about the Customer Value Stack. This is worth a read as it helps explain the difference between Jobs, Outcomes and Products. Typically for each study, the focus should be on one or two Jobs to be Done. For example, in financial services, this might be: "help me manage my monthly money" and "help me grow my money". There are then multiple desired outcomes that sit below each Job to be Done.

The core principles of doing Jobs to be Done research

From project to project things will change and some of the questions you ask may vary. However, when making decisions about the research setup, these are the core principles that can guide you.

  1. It's not about the product, it's about the customer. You're trying to build or improve a product so you're keen to understand what customers think of it. Why not focus on the product? Because the Job to be Done remains fairly stable over time, the product customers hire to make progress on the job is the variable. For your product to stay relevant, you need to stay tuned into why customers choose one product over another and what motivates them.
  2. Understand the context, it can change everything. The customer's context is important, it shapes their decision making and behaviour. Affluence, life stage, pre-existing knowledge of the category/product and the context of use for the product are super important when it comes to product design and marketing.
  3. Focus on the struggle, this is the catalyst for change. There is no opportunity if the customer feels no pain. This is the energy that motivates the customer to take action and make a change by pulling a new product into their life.
  4. Don't focus on features, focus on outcomes. A big critique of conducting customer research is the (now cliche) Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The critique is fair, good research means not asking what customers want but what outcomes the customer desires. The outcome is what Jobs to be Done focuses on. It's up to the product designers and entrepreneurs to figure out how to build a product that helps customers make progress towards those outcomes.
  5. Understand the customer's mental model, this is what you design around. Peter Drucker famously said: “People rarely buy what the company thinks it’s selling.” When designing products and experiences, how you and your company categorise things is not important. How and why customers use your product will reveal the biggest insights into the value you create.

Structuring the interview

Most of the Jobs to be Done interview scripts you will find online focus on the "switch" or the "purchase". This is the main focus of my interview structure too, but with a few extras around the edges. I've labelled this the "hire" because there have been many cases where the solution doesn't involve a purchase. It's a workaround or series of free services used together. I think the "hire" best describes all of these situations.

Structure of a Jobs to be Done interview, Customer Interviews

The five areas of the interview are:

  1. Introductions and framing. Building rapport with the participants and framing what will happen over the next hour.
  2. The individual. What shapes the way they think and behave?
  3. The hire. What are the forces that motivate the customer to hire a product? Why did they hire the product?
  4. The category. How does the new solution fit into the mental model of other jobs they are trying to get done?
  5. Closing and prioritisation. Determining the biggest struggle and the most important outcome the customer needs help finding a solution for.

I will now list out some good questions to ask in each of these phases. The key is not to follow this list of questions but use it for inspiration and as a guide when planning and conducting your own interviews.

//START INTERVIEW SCRIPT

Introductions and framing

First, introduce yourself and thank them for their time. Reveal a little about yourself and why you've set up this interview. This is an example of something I would say:

I want to talk to you about [TOPIC]. I’m specifically interested in what you use, how and why. I'm interested in how you think, the language you use, what frustrations you might have, and what you expect from the products and services you use.

If there's anything you don't feel comfortable answering, that's totally fine. We don't have a long list of questions and there are no right or wrong answers. We're just trying to understand your thought process and how things unfolded.

Imagine we're shooting a documentary. What would we tell the actors to do, and how would we tell them they need to feel?

If you are recording the interview, make sure you remind them and gain permission before you start. Ideally, you'd have gotten them to sign a consent form during the recruitment process.

The individual

Before we dig into [TOPIC], could you tell me a little bit more about yourself?

  • Where do you live?
  • Who do you live with?
  • What are your main responsibilities at home and/or work?
  • How often do you travel with your family or work?
  • What are you most looking forward to in the next year or so?

Your aim here is to build a picture of the kind of lifestyle they have. Are they taking into consideration their partner or dependents when making decisions about the [TOPIC]? If they travel a lot this might impact their Jobs to be Done. The future-focused question identifies any big life events that they are working towards, like moving house or having kids.

The hire

This is the main section of the interview and is focused on Bob Moesta's timeline of progress. The key is to start by helping the participant remember the "hire" the customer made. Then go right back to the start of the timeline and identify the first thought, working across the timeline identifying drivers and barriers as you go.

Jobs to be Done interview, Timeline for Progress

Recalling the hire

You recently bought or signed up [TOPIC AREA PRODUCT]: tell me about it...

  • When was it?
  • What day was it?
  • Who were you with?
  • Where were you?
  • Was it an impulse purchase or was it planned?

All of the questions above help the participant recollect a vivid memory of what happened. This will help them remember the details that surround the event and the things that influenced their decisions.

Identifying the first thought and the struggling moment

[FIRST THOUGHT]

  • Let’s rewind: When was the moment you first thought: "I need to get [the thing hired]?
  • Who were you with?
  • Were you at home or at work?

[STRUGGLING MOMENT]

  • What happened to prompt that thought?
  • How did you solve that problem?
  • Why were you using that?
  • What was wrong with what you were using? [ALSO A PUSH]
  • What impact does it have on your life? [TAP INTO THE EMOTION]
  • Did it use to work or has it always been a struggle? What has changed?

If the Job to be Done is more complicated or there are very limited solutions in the market you could ask:

  • Talk me through how you currently work around this problem?
  • What mix of services, tools and processes do you use to create a workaround for yourself? [HABIT]
  • How does it work? What's the first thing you do, why do you start there?
  • Is anyone else involved or are you reliant on anyone else?
  • How does it affect your relationships with these people? [TAP INTO SOCIAL MOTIVATIONS]
  • What is the most frustrating part of your workaround? [PUSH]

Passive looking

  • When did you start hearing about alternative solutions or products that might help you with the [STRUGGLING MOMENT]?
  • What were they?
  • How did you first hear about it?
  • What were the key things that stood out? Why did they stand out? [PULL]
  • Why didn't you make the change when you first heard about this? [HABIT]
  • What made you remember this product or service? [EMOTIONAL PULL]

Active Looking

In this part of the interview, you need to identify the consideration set. This will help you understand the types of solutions that compete with one another. They might not always be what you expect. Watch this interview with Reed Hastings about who Netflix compete with.

  • When you started seriously looking for a solution, who did you consider?
  • Tell me about how you selected these providers.
  • Did you do any research? Where did you do the research?
  • Why did you consider them? [PULL]
  • What were you looking for? Why? [PULL]
  • Who did you rule out and why? [PUSH]

Deciding

This section aims to understand the trade-offs customers make. When you understand the customer's motivations, they are not always about price. In this section, you'll identify a lot of pull factors and anxieties. In your questioning, search for validation points or trust factors aiding their decision making.

  • When you were deciding on which product to buy/sign-up to what were the different things you were trading off? [PRIORITISING PULL]
  • Did you discuss these things with your friends/family? What were those conversations like? [EMOTIONAL DRIVERS AND BARRIERS]
  • What things put you off buying/signing-up? Why? [ANXIETIES]
  • Did you sign up for any trials?
  • What did you trial and why? What didn't you trial and why?
  • When did you decide: ok, I’m going for it?
  • Why, what was the deciding factor? [PULL]
  • Did you imagine what life would be like using this product? [EMOTIONAL/SOCIAL PULL]

First Use / Onboarding

  • What was the set-up process like?
  • How did the first use of the product make you feel? [DIG INTO THE EMOTION]
  • How did the first use of the product compare to your expectations?
  • Are any of these gaps between expectation and reality significant? Why?

Ongoing use

It's important to dig into how well this product satisfied the customer's Job to be Done. Did it create new frustrations? What's missing?

  • What is your experience using the product or service?
  • What surprised you (good or bad)? Why did it surprise you?
  • What does success look like when using this type of product? [DESIRED OUTCOME]

The category

This section is all about understanding how the product fits within a broader set of Jobs to be Done. The answers might challenge what category you thought you were operating in. It should also reveal the ecosystem of other complementary products and services you could partner with or connect with in the future.

  • If for some reason you couldn't use the [PRODUCT HIRED] to help you [JOB TO BE DONE], what else would you use?
  • Now that you’re using [THE SOLUTION], who would you recommend it to and why?
  • How does this [PRODUCT HIRED] work with other related products or services you currently use? [UNDERSTAND THE END-TO-END JOURNEY]
  • Why do you use these [RELATED PRODUCTS]?
  • What kind of things do they help you get done?
  • Does this [NEW PRODUCT] fit within a system or process?
  • Can you please describe how and why you decided to use them this way?

Closing and prioritisation

This short final question is a great way to reflect on everything discussed in the interview. It also helps you prioritise the most painful moments and/or the most desirable outcomes.

  • Thanks, we're almost done. Please think back about everything we've just spoken about. The frustrations you experience, the new product you hired and how that fits in with everything else you use.
  • If you had an assistant to help you with all of this, what would you get this person to help you with first?
  • Why this?
  • What would be the most important outcome this person could deliver for you?

// END INTERVIEW SCRIPT

I hope this is useful. Please remember what I said before though, this should not be used as a script. Go with the flow and chase the story. This is a guide and should act as an inspiration for your interviews.

The best bit of advice I could give you is not to worry, it's a conversation. If you don't get all the insights you were looking for, adapt your approach and try again. Some of the people you speak to are like closed books and getting them to open up is hard and comes with experience. You will know when you've had a good interview because the participant will feel like they've learnt a lot about themselves. That's a nice thing to leave them with. 😀💡

← Growth comes easier when you're customer obsessed
Interview with Eckhart Boehme about The Wheel of Progress →

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