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Empathy Matters: The Power of the Jobs to Be Done Approach

By and

Tue Jul 18 2023

Empathy Matters: The Power of the Jobs to Be Done Approach

As a designer of learning interventions, understanding what people truly need and want to achieve, independent of the specific tools, services, or support they employ, is crucial. The Jobs to Be Done (JTBD) approach centers on uncovering the core task that people want to accomplish and designing solutions that assist them in doing so. This framework, originally rooted in marketing and innovation, provides valuable insights for designing learning interventions.

The Power of Jobs to Be Done

Professor Theodore Levitt captured it aptly: “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” This quote challenges designers to think about the user’s core task. Let’s take on this challenge and complete this sentence: “Learners don’t need training programs, they need...” What do they truly need? It’s not just about the learners themselves, but more broadly about what they want to accomplish in their lives.


Empathy is a crucial aspect of designing learning interventions. While empathy maps and personas can assist in this process, they offer limited insight into people’s needs and goals. They don’t reveal the specific tasks people want to accomplish in their lives. This is where the JTBD approach shines. By focusing on the learner and what they want to achieve, empathy becomes valuable in the design process.

One of the most important advocates of the JTBD approach is Harvard professor Clayton Christensen. His legendary video on JTBD for milkshakes illustrates how JTBD helped him understand why people buy milkshakes. Christensen often notes that people hire different products and services to accomplish things that are important to them. In the JTBD schema, the notion of hiring serves the idea that you temporarily need something to get a job done. You hire a quarter-inch drill to create a quarter-inch hole, you hire a smartphone app to listen to music, you hire a milkshake to fill your stomach and keep yourself busy during a dull commute, etc. It all starts with understanding the functional jobs to be done.

Functional Jobs to Be Done

When formulating a functional job to be done, it’s important to provide a clear and concise description. This consists of a verb, a result description, and context clarification. This approach allows for clear understanding of the core task that people want to accomplish, such as “take a blood sample at the hospital,” “install a heat pump at the customer’s home,” or “hang a painting in the house.” Understanding these functional tasks allows you to design with relevance and empathy.

The Importance of Emotional and Social Aspects

In addition to functional jobs to be done, there are other aspects to consider when designing learning interventions. Emotional jobs to be done involve how people feel and what they experience during or after completing a task. As a designer, you can consciously consider these emotional aspects. How do you want people to feel while performing a task? Think about safety, confidence, expertise, pride, or happiness. Designing a learning intervention that addresses the functional task and supports these desired emotional experiences leads to a better solution.

Social jobs to be done focus on how people are perceived by others while performing a task. Status and reputation come into play. People want to be viewed as helpful, competent, and positive leaders, experts, influencers, or role models. They generally prefer to avoid negative labels like know-it-all or novice. It’s essential to integrate these social truths into learning intervention design, especially when teaching new skills. Practice and feedback are crucial for building self-confidence and achieving a positive reputation among colleagues or clients.


Example: Firefighters

The functional job to be done is saving lives and protecting against fire hazards. The emotional job to be done is the sense of fulfillment and heroism experienced. The social job to be done includes the respect and appreciation firefighters receive from society. The consumption chain job to be done is the smooth flow of training and the use of necessary equipment. In the case of firefighters, mutual trust is also a key social and emotional job to be done and a critical aspect of the job. By understanding these aspects, you can design learning interventions to meet the specific needs of firefighters and enhance their skills and capabilities.

The Importance of Context

An important aspect of the JTBD approach is its emphasis on the contexts in which people perform their tasks. You should consider this aspect throughout the design process. It’s essential to visit the workplace, observe the users, and understand specific contextual challenges. Conduct conversations with users in their work environments to gain a deeper insight into how your design will be used in practice. By integrating contextual insights, you can design learning interventions that are relevant and effective in the specific environments in which they will be applied.

Applying Jobs to Be Done in the Design Process

Designing learning interventions using the JTBD approach offers several advantages. First, it helps connect individuals with the task, which contributes to a solution’s relevance. Second, it acknowledges the emotional and social needs of the user, resulting in more comprehensive and effective designs. Last, the JTBD approach explicitly incorporates context into the design process, ensuring that solutions align with the specific needs of users.

To demonstrate that empathy matters, it’s important to test the hypotheses generated through empathy and research. You do this by engaging in conversation with end users and gathering their feedback. By continuously staying in touch with users and considering their contexts, you can design learning interventions that genuinely meet their needs and goals.


Example: Installers

A producer of heat pumps ensures that, through the training department, installers of their products have knowledge, skills, and performance support at their disposal. Performance support is available online so installers can easily use their tablets or smartphones to access content.

There were complaints from Germany. In Germany, the heat pumps are mainly placed in cellars, where there is typically no WiFi available. What seemed to be a good solution, didn’t work in this specific context. This could have been prevented if designers had researched the context more extensively in the design phase.

Empathy That Matters

The JTBD approach provides a valuable framework for designing learning interventions with empathy. By understanding what people want to achieve, both functionally and emotionally, and by considering the specific context in which they perform their tasks, designers can create solutions that are relevant, effective, and enjoyable. By employing empathy in a profound and context-aware manner, learning intervention designers can create solutions that address the users’ needs and help them achieve their goals.

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