User interviews are an important tool that entrepreneurs, product managers, and other business professionals can use to understand customers. An effective interview can facilitate a deep exploration of a customer’s wants, needs, goals, and challenges.

With these insights, businesses can draw conclusions about their ideal customers and develop new, innovative offerings—or improve upon existing ones—to more effectively meet market demands and drive future growth.

If you’re looking to launch a venture, develop a new product or service, or refine an existing offering, a great way to learn about your customers and how you can better serve them is by identifying their jobs to be done.

Viewing Customer Needs as “Jobs to Be Done”

In the online course Disruptive Strategy, taught by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, a job to be done is defined as “the progress an entity, customer, or business is trying to make during the course of day-to-day life. It’s a circumstances-based description of understanding your customers’ desires, competitive set, anxieties, habits, and timeline of purchase.”

Christensen’s jobs to be done (JTBD) theory asserts that rather than buying a product or service, customers “hire” it to do a “job.”

Related: Jobs to Be Done: 4 Real-World Examples

Knowing the job your product is hired to do can enable you to iterate on it in ways that are meaningful to the customer. It allows you to develop an innovative value proposition that aligns directly with your customers’ needs and harness the power of disruptive innovation. It can also provide clues about the size of the market and whether it’s growing, and help you identify competitors.

One of the most effective ways to identify jobs to be done is to conduct user interviews with current and former customers, as well as non-customers. Here are seven questions to ask during a customer interview to gather as much insight as possible.

Questions to Ask During a Customer Interview

Use the following open-ended questions to kickstart your interview. As you learn more about the user, ask follow-up questions to dig deeper into their motivations and gain valuable insights about their decision-making process. The goal of these conversations is to identify the job the user hired your product or service to do.

1. When Was the First Time You Thought About Buying [PRODUCT]?

Ask the user to think back to the first time they realized they needed your product or a similar one. Did a specific event trigger that need? Did they come to a decision quickly, or need time to think before purchasing?

Depending on the type of product in question, the buying cycle could last anywhere from several minutes to years before a final decision is made. Asking the user to reflect on the time they initially thought about buying the product can provide context you can use to better understand the buying cycle from start to finish.

2. What Challenge Were You Trying to Solve When You Bought [PRODUCT]?

Similar to the first question, asking the user what challenge they were trying to solve when they made their decision could help you uncover the job they needed to get done.

Was the purchase intended to help the user avoid or ease the effects of a challenge they were facing? Was it intended to help them achieve a specific goal?

This additional context can provide important clues about the job the user hired your product to fulfill.

3. How Did You Learn About [PRODUCT]?

Once you’ve discovered how the user became aware of their need, explore the different tools and resources they used to learn more about possible solutions, including your product.

Did the user find out about the product from a friend or family member? Did they do their research online? Other sources of information could include a company website, industry publications, books and magazines, social media, or a conversation with a sales professional.

In addition to analyzing how the user learned about possible solutions, identify questions they had about the product to learn more about the criteria of their “job description.”

4. What Other Options Did You Consider When You Made Your Decision?

There are often a variety of possible solutions for a given need. For example, if a person’s underlying motivation for making a purchase is to have reliable transportation to and from work each day, their options may include a car, a bicycle, and public transportation.

Once the user has decided on the type of transportation that best fits their needs, such as a car, they must also decide the make, model, and color of the car they want to buy.

It’s easy to become fixated with competition that’s directly related to your product. Instead of focusing on the decision to buy a sedan over an SUV, for instance, take a step back to explore other options the customer could have chosen. You might be surprised to learn your product is competing with a solution you hadn’t previously considered.

5. What Made You Choose [PRODUCT] Over the Other Options?

Once the customer has identified the different options they considered, probe deeper to explore the factors that led to their final decision.

Cost, features, value, and quality are common criteria that shape a buyer’s decision-making process. Social and emotional factors can also play a role.

6. What Solution Were You Using Before? Why Didn’t You Buy the Same Thing Again?

If the user indicates they tried other solutions before deciding to buy your product, ask about their experience. Identifying the qualities of the old solution that the user liked and didn’t like will help you further explore why they made a change.

7. Who Was Involved in the Decision to Buy [PRODUCT]?

When presented with solutions that require a considerable investment of time, money, or other resources, people tend to enlist others to help them make a decision. Ask the user about the people they turned to for guidance throughout the buying process.

Who was the primary decision-maker, if not the end user? Who did they turn to when they needed advice? Whose opinion was most important to them, and why?

If you know who those individuals are, you can better understand their role in shaping the user’s decision.

New call-to-action

Organizing for Innovation

Use these questions to lay the groundwork for an effective and insightful interview with your customers. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions and dig deeper into their underlying motivations.

The answers to these questions should help you uncover your ideal customers’ jobs to be done and gain a deeper understanding of their purchasing behavior. Organizing your efforts around this core job to be done will allow your team to develop innovative product offerings and position your business for continued growth.

Want to learn more about the jobs to be done theory and other frameworks to drive innovation? Explore our six-week online course Disruptive Strategy to develop the skills you need to drive growth in your organization.

Kelsey Miller

About the Author

Kelsey Miller is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.