"Their customers never flinched."


James Surowiecki:

You had tens of millions of affluent consumers. They ate out a lot. They were comfortable with fast food, having grown up during its heyday, but they wanted something other than the typical factory-made burger. So, even as the fast-food giants focussed on keeping prices down, places like Panera and Chipotle began charging higher prices. Their customers never flinched.
It might seem that the success of fast-casual was simply a matter of producing the right product at the right time. But restaurants like Chipotle and Five Guys didn’t just respond to customer demand; they also shaped it. As Darren Tristano, an analyst at Technomic, put it, “Consumers didn’t really know what they wanted until they could get it.” 

Some of this is analogous to the recent rise of Apple as well. Certainly, there’s an element of “right place, right time”, but it’s also about shaping conditions to create that place at that time.

Few consumers can imagine new products or services they’d buy at anything but the “lowest resolution.”

User Stories Must Die

I knew the traditional Agile user story was lifeless and disconnected from the real world long before I could articulate why. Then I came across Alan Klement’s post on replacing user stories with Job Stories, which builds on top of the Jobs-to-be-Done framework.

Instead of the usual “As a / I want / so that” structure, a Job Story looks like this:

  • When [I’m in a certain situation]
  • I want to [take some action]
  • so I can [achieve some outcome].

I’m in the middle of synthesizing a pile of customer research right now, and I’m kind of amazed how well the Job Story lets me encapsulate what I’ve learned in literally one sentence. Traditional design methodologies offer other ways to capture and share these insights, but boiling it down that much is very compelling.

Another benefit I’m seeing is knowing how much more research is needed. That is, if you can’t write the Job Story to explain a behavior, you’re not done interviewing.

The Study of Causation: Etiology

I was listening to the TED Radio Hour today and ran across a great word: etiology.

It’s the study of causation, as in:

What causes someone to contract polio?

For those of us doing product work, it’s critical to know what causes someone to use a particular feature. What caused this user to run a certain report? What’s causing these other users to create a given workaround?

Your product will improve when you understand the etiology of each user behavior.

“Spaces” Don’t Exist

You can’t swing a dead cat at this year’s CES without knocking over a booth full of “wearable” technology. You’ve probably heard of Google Glass, but did you know you can also buy a drum machine t-shirt, solar-powered bikini and jeans with an embedded keyboard and mouse?

No doubt about it: wearables are one of the hottest “spaces” right now. I see only two problems:

  1. There is no such thing as a “space.”
  2. It doesn’t matter if the products are wearable.

Spaces Don’t Exist

The term “space” is a product of lazy, muddled thinking. I can’t say it better than Marc Andreessen:

There is such a thing as a market—that’s a group of people who will directly or indirectly pay money for something. There is such a thing as a product—that’s an offering of a new kind of good or service that is brought to a market. There is such a thing as a company—that’s an organized business entity that brings a product to a market. But there is no such thing as a “space”.

If someone tells you that “space” is hot, ask them who exactly will buy these products, and what hole it will fill in the buyer’s lives.

Categories Don’t Matter

Whether something like Google Glass is wearable may or may not be relevant to what it helps me do. Mat Honan spent the last year using Glass and identified some concrete usage for it. I’ll pick one example here and phrase it in terms of a job story (a term coined by Alan Klement):

When I’m with my child and (s)he does something cute, I want to take a photo quickly without retrieving a device so I can stay engaged while capturing the moment.

Couldn’t something like Dropcam with more advanced face detection perform this job? How about other products currently focused on security monitoring? It’s not important to me that the device doing the job be mounted to my head, as long as it gets done. In fact, I may prefer nothing on my face.

The interesting products from this year’s CES will address underserved jobs-to-be-done. They need not be attached to your body.

Functional, Social, and Emotional Jobs

Have you ever been watching a game show and found yourself screaming at the TV because you know the answer to the question, but the contestants don’t? That’s how I felt listening to a recent episode of NPR’s Planet Money podcast. It’s a great show that boils down complex economic issues like the European debt crisis into digestible narratives.

But on this one, they missed the boat.

The Topic: Labels

The topic of this particular episode was the effects of labels on product purchasing, starting with the example of generic pharmaceuticals. The story on generics asks why anyone would buy a brand name like Tylenol or Bayer instead of the generic version with the same active ingredients. The imprecise conclusion they report is the following: consumers waste money on a brand name when they lack information and don’t understand the goods are identical.

This is only true if you assume consumers evaluate products solely based on their function. In reality, every product has three components in the eyes of the consumer:

  • Functional: As the name suggests, this is the core function the product performs for the consumer. (“How clean does the detergent make my clothes?”)
  • Emotional: This is how the product makes the consumer feel. (“This detergent makes me happy because it reminds me of my childhood.”)
  • Social: This is how the product affects the consumer’s relationship with other people. (“When people see the detergent bottle and notice it’s a ‘green’ product, I’ll look good in their eyes.”)

A product that costs more primarily due to emotional or social factors could also be called a luxury product. There may be some small functional differences between the Casio MQ24-1B2 and the Tag Heuer Monaco Calibre 36 but not enough to explain why the former costs less than $10 and the latter costs more than $10,000. They both tell time, but somehow Tag Hauer can charge 1000 times as much. Or, you can take a page from Apple’s book and sell a higher volume of affordable luxury items.

The lesson here for product teams is that if you want to charge more, focus on the emotional and social components. (Better that than becoming a commodity.) Despite the fact that you could email your friends photos of where you are, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion. And despite the fact that it’s easy to set up a free web site, Yahoo! bought Tumblr for $1 billion.

So how do you understand the emotional and social impact your product has on your customers? Simple: go talk to them. You need real stories of purchase and usage to get this right. And don’t forget this isn’t the same as market research…that focuses on feelings about the brand, whereas you need to access the feelings about the product.

Taking the next step

The method of analyzing a product by its functional, social and emotional components is another aspect of the Jobs-to-be-Done framework. You can learn more about this at the workshops hosted by Bob Moesta and Chris Spiek.