What is the Jobs To Be Done approach to product development (and why does ELT need to care)?

On the surface it stands to reason that if someone buys a product or service from you, it’s because, well, they want it. But we don’t have to look very far to see that it is a little more complicated than that.

The Jobs to be Done (JTBD) approach, which is principally used in product development, tells us that when people buy something from you, they are in fact only ‘hiring’ your product to achieve their objective. In essence, for the consumer, it is not what you are selling that is important, it is the result of what you are selling that they care about.

Theodore Levitt, economist and professor at Harvard Business School, framed it nicely when he said:

People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.

JTBD is all about understanding the reasons why people buy and use certain products and services. With the right information, businesses can optimise their processes, improve the customer experience and, ultimately, deliver greater value. 

You can apply the JTBD approach to anything a customer might buy, from tennis rackets and chocolate bars to management books and English language courses.

Interpreting JTBD

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, one of the original thinkers behind the JTBD approach and author of The Innovator’s Solution (2003), offers an interpretation of JTBD that looks at what progress people want to make when they buy a specific product or service.

In this talk, Christensen uses a fast food chain that was trying to increase its milkshake sales as an example of JTBD thinking in action. He explains that, after some research, the company discovered that the majority of milkshakes were bought in the early morning as single items by men driving to work. Most importantly, the company discovered that its customers weren’t simply buying the shakes for their taste or texture; they were actually buying them because they took a long time to drink and they wanted something to stimulate them on the long drive to work.

Armed with this knowledge, the fast food company took steps to speed up the ordering process and optimise it for take-away customers so that they could get on with their journeys as quickly as possible. Sales quadrupled as a result.

What happens when we attempt to map this concept to the ELT marketplace? The English courses and materials that learners purchase are merely the drill bits (to appropriate Levitt’s adage). What we really need to understand in order to develop the right products and services for them is what hole they are looking to make. 

Why JTBD matters in English language learning

When people choose to sit through three hours of English classes a week, they’re not spending their hard earned cash on the classes themselves. They’re hiring the course or service in order to be able to achieve a very specific and personal outcome; to communicate confidently on that holiday to the USA, to stand out from the crowd at a job interview, to improve their chances of being promoted, to move abroad to start a new life, and so on. Whereas a quarter-inch drill bit perfectly meets the needs of anyone and everyone needing to drill a quarter-inch hole, what we tend to see in ELT are quarter-inch drill bit products for people who are looking to varnish, sand, carve, or whatever else you can do with wood besides drilling holes into it. 

By discovering what problems learners are actually hiring English language learning products to solve, we dramatically improve our chances of creating products that make their lives better.

How to apply JTBD in ELT

One of the best ways to uncover the JTBD for any learner or group of learners is to ask questions. These questions need to deliberately prompt the learner to reflect on their relationship to the language learning product or service they are hiring. For example, when he was helping the fast food chain work out what their milkshake customers were really driven by, Christensen framed his question in terms of what they were hiring the milkshake to do. If that was too much of an abstract notion for the customer to respond to, he paraphrased it to “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?” 

How would a learner respond to that? Could they respond to that?

Similarly, we have a list of ‘powerful questions’ that we advocate using with learners to help them reflect on their relationship to their English learning. These are designed to avoid the superficial level of enquiry that typically constitutes a needs analysis or placement interview. Instead, these aim to delve more into the learners’ emotional responses. The questions are arranged into three categories that help us move towards a deeper level of insight.

Here are a few examples of questions from across each of those categories:

Motivations and desired outcomes

  • What are you trying to accomplish in life that you think better English would help you with?
  • What do you think you would get out of life if you spoke better English?
  • What does success in learning English look like for you?
  • What problem with speaking or learning English do you wish someone would solve for you?

Context and behaviour

  • How are you spending your time learning English now?
  • If you had an extra hour free each day to spend on English, how would you spend it?
  • Does it ever seem like you’re wasting time while learning English? What are you doing at those times?
  • What factors in your life make learning English more of a challenge? Do any factors make it less of a challenge?
  • When it feels like you’re making the most progress in English, what are you doing?

Feelings and emotions

  • What kinds of thing make you happy?
  • Which parts of learning English make you feel joy or happiness?
  • What frustrates you about learning English?
  • When do you feel most proud of yourself?

You can find more powerful questions in a Google Doc here.

A deeper understanding of our learners helps us develop learning products and services that really serve their underlying needs. Usually, it just requires asking the right the questions at the right moment.

4 thoughts on “What is the Jobs To Be Done approach to product development (and why does ELT need to care)?”

  1. Tim,

    This is a very practical outline of an important problem set. And yet…….

    I want to offer yet another perspective on this. I would like to suggest that in some/many cases when a student hires you they are placing themselves in your trust and their deepest desire is for help.

    Very few students will tell you, “I need help, I hope you are competent, and I want to trust you completely.” Yet I would suggest that for many/most that this is the deepest hidden level that a student can go. What is more, many students will not be able or will not be willing to express themselves at this “level.”

  2. Thanks a lot for this highly practical article which is really very helpful and insightful . At the same time I can’t but agree with the above comment. MIchael has described the situation I find very common with my students. Students can’t comprehensively formulate what they need English for. Their understanding of what they actually want to achieve and what works best for them is vague and not clear and thus doesn’t help a teacher at all.
    I guess there is no contradiction between the two positions expressed above by the author and by MIchael. Just because they are different. In the first case the client is a Teacher who chooses an ELT Product and whose motivations, goals, desires and feelings are usually clear and prounounced.
    in the second we have to consider needs, emotions, motivation and desired outcomes of a particular group of students or a sudents. And these are usually hidden and
    not expressed.

  3. Great article, Tim! My penny’s worth is that we can use this approach to help keep students motivated. Identifying ‘why’ they are studying, or their “pain points”, to throw in a bit of marketing jargon, should be part of our role as educators IMHO.


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