Published in Business -

Without one key ingredient, many ‘online hub’ and ‘digital portal’ projects are meaningless. Here’s why.

‘This will be an unparalleled hub of activity for our audience’…

So many project briefings start with this type of sentence. Another popular one is: ‘the solution will act as an innovative portal’. As common as these phrases are, they’re sometimes problematic. And there’s one key reason why.

Phrases like ‘digital community portal’ and ‘online hub’ speak to vague mechanisms for interaction rather than objectives or outcomes. They’re terms you might expect from a character in a satirical television show like ‘Utopia‘, and not the sort of words that mean much to the people who’ll end up using the services.

In many cases, they also abdicate specificity around what the hub or portal actually does.

This makes things challenging. Especially when there’s no established minimum requirement to constitute a hub or portal. There are some semi-formal definitions: ‘a web portal aggregates information from multiple sources and makes this information available to various users. But in short, it could be anything, and it could do anything.

Simply calling something a hub implies that it will be a central and crucial fulcrum of some type of activity for… someone. The specific type of activity or content and for whom are the critical considerations.

What is the unique value of this hub or portal? How is it different to the content or features that might be available on a website? How is it different to Google or any other search engine? How is it better than any existing means of accessing or distributing information, like PDFs or emails?

What is the specific job for this product, platform, portal, or hub? Or, more fittingly, what is the job-to-be-done?

The answer to this question is the crucial ingredient for success.

Every project, portal, platform or hub needs a clear job-to-be-done. Or more accurately, jobs.

Enter the jobs-to-be-done framework (JTBD). Originally developed by Tony Ulwick—and elaborated upon and extended by Clayton Christensen—the JTBD framework removes the focus from products and places it on customers.

Crucially, it goes a step beyond merely focusing on customers themselves and emphasising what they want.

Customer motivations are key, because correlative information about audience demographics can only offer so much insight.

Consider this observation from Clayton Christensen about himself:

“Clayton Christensen… [is] 64 years old. He’s six feet eight inches tall. His shoe size is 16. He and his wife have sent all their children off to college. He drives a Honda minivan to work. He has a lot of characteristics, but none of them has caused him to go out and buy the New York Times.

His reasons for buying the paper are much more specific. He might buy it because he needs something to read on a plane or because he’s a basketball fan and it’s March Madness time. Marketers who collect demographic or psychographic information about him—and look for correlations with other buyer segments—are not going to capture those reasons.”

Nobody wants to buy a quarter-inch drill.

The celebrated Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt once famously said: ’no one wants to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want to buy a quarter-inch hole’.

Ulwick’s jobs-to-be-done framework takes things a step further. Nobody actually wants a quarter-inch hole either; they want to hang their favourite artwork on prominent display, put up a photo of their family, or mount a TV to the wall.

People face thousands of jobs every day. And we hire different products and solutions to help us complete them.

A well-designed product is one that perfectly aligns with a specific, necessary job and completes that job with a reliable level of quality, satisfaction or efficiency.

Conversely, we ‘fire’ poorly designed products or solutions that don’t deliver on their job. Even worse, some products are built without a valid job at all, and don’t ever get the opportunity to be fired.

Some jobs are small and self-contained: find something to eat. Check the weather forecast in your suburb. Message a friend.

Other jobs are sophisticated and multi-faceted: compare the price for different hotel rooms in a certain area over a specific time period.

This is where things get a little meta. Within Ulwick’s framework, there are multiple jobs within every job-to-be-done, regardless of its scale or complexity.

Understanding types of jobs.

Very few jobs exist in isolation. And every job has additional context that informs when, how, and why different people may need or want to do it.

Within Ulwick’s framework:

  • There is the core functional job. This is the specific task or outcome any person or group of people is trying to achieve.
  • There are related jobs. These are ancillary outcomes that may be achieved as a bi-product of completing the core job. These could be mandatory or optional as part of the process.
  • There are emotional jobs. These are the intangible emotional benefits that someone seeks to gain by engaging with the product or service.
  • There are social jobs. These are the positive social gains that come from using the product or service in a social context; is there anything people want to project or convey to others by virtue of completing the job in a certain way?
  • And there are consumption chain jobs. What are the functional or mechanical steps involved in completing the core functional job? This could itemise functionalities that need to be built in order to facilitate the job, or procedural steps a person goes through in order to complete the core functional job.

Let’s look at an applied example, specifically in the context of a ‘community hub’ type of project.

After developing an insight—people who experience a change in vision may be hesitant to reach out for in-person support services—the team at Guide Dogs started thinking about the jobs-to-be-done that people experience in this scenario.

  • There is a core functional job: find support in the sometimes-challenging interim period between experiencing a change in vision and becoming comfortable about the prospect of engaging in-person support services.
  • There are related jobs: learn from other people who’ve been through a similar experience, know the feeling, and navigated the challenges to find support. Ask them questions. Share your own experiences. Understand more about living with low vision or blindness. Get a sense of the support that’s available.
  • There are emotional jobs: feel a sense of greater social connectedness and group belonging. Feel like people have been through this before and everything’s ok.
  • There are social jobs: connect with others and hear directly from their lived experience. Get acquainted with other people who have experienced a change in vision, or who have lived their entire life with blindness or low vision. Feel like you’re part of a committed and supportive group.
  • There are functional consumption chain jobs: join discussions in an online community forum. Message other members in the community, both publicly and privately as the need arises. See how many other members have joined the community. And many more.

This is a high-level example of the types of jobs-to-be done that informed the development of the platform.

However, you can see how these types of insights can inform valuable direction for:

  • The mechanical functionalities the platform needs to offer to support people in achieving their jobs.
  • Things the team can do beyond merely achieving key jobs, to ensure people feel positive and experience the right sentiment while completing those jobs.
  • A roadmap of the steps people will take to complete their jobs, which can inform product roadmaps to help teams articulate, prioritise, and deliver the work.

By documenting the jobs-to-be-done, the team establish a clear portrait of the required utility. They can then conceptualise and build the best possible ‘thing’ to meet those needs.

Every great platform starts with a thorough understanding of a problem.

Think back to Theodore Levitt’s drill analogy. The jobs-to-be-done process encourages teams to think about why people want to change their lounge room, before considering the best tool to help them achieve that change.

The old idiom suggests the importance of choosing the right tool for the job. Perhaps the emphasis should be reversed: when you understand the job, it’s much easier to find the most effective tool.