A Blueprint for Understanding How People Buy Anything

How to use the three-act Customer Forces story structure to define, position, and build better products

“Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless — they are systematic and predictable.”
- Dan Ariely, Predictable Irrational

There is no such thing as an impulse purchase. Behind every purchase is a string of causal events and forces.

Unpack these forces, and you unpack how to define, position, and build better products for your customers -- aka achieve problem/solution fit.

Don’t believe me? Think of a specific product you recently purchased in the last 90 days. Once you have one, keep reading and apply the thought exercises to this product purchase.

The Three-Act Customer Forces Story Structure

Like any good story, customer journeys can be broken into 3 acts:

  • ACT I (Setup) - Old Way Breaks
  • ACT II (Confrontation) - Hiring a New Way
  • ACT III (Resolution) - Job Done?


“People don’t buy products. They switch between products to make progress.”
- Bob Moesta, Rewired Group

Act 1 captures the transition between the status quo (ordinary life) and passive looking (a call to action) through an inciting incident or triggering event (switching trigger). There’s always one.

Examples of B2C switching triggers:

  • Lifecycle event - birthday, wedding, anniversary, birth, death, etc.
  • Bad experience - a product you own, like a car, phone, or laptop, literally breaks or starts to underperform,
  • Awareness event - visit to the doctor, new technology, or product offering.

Examples of B2B switching triggers:

  • Startup funding event, company acquisition, or merger
  • starting a new role/position
  • Regulatory changes

These switching triggers challenge the status quo (old way) already in place and PUSH (or motivate) the customer to want to change. The thought of a better outcome (desired outcome) serves to PULL the customer up the progress hill. But progress requires work represented here as INERTIA.

Examples of inertia:

  • procrastination
  • switching costs
  • old habits

We’re constantly tempted by new purchases that we ignore. This is when

A necessary condition then to transition from Act I to Act II is when

Thought exercises for the product you recently purchased:
- What were you using before to get the job done (old way)?
- What caused you to look for something new (switching trigger)?
- What were you hoping to accomplish at that moment (desired outcome)?
- What where the barriers to switching (inertia)?

Act 2 is the crux of the story, where the customer auditions other candidate solutions and picks the “best” solution for the job. This is where their (job) requirements get defined, and choices are made (confrontation).

These forces don’t remain static during this stage but continue to evolve.

For example,

  • an impending regulatory deadline amplifies (PUSH) the motivation for a change.
  • discovering additional switching costs amplifies (INERTIA) the comfort of staying with the old way.

Each candidate solution comes with a promise of better/unique value proposition (PULL) and barriers or anxieties to adoption (FRICTION).

For candidate solutions that don’t get picked,

For the chosen solution, PUSH + PULL > INERTIA + FRICTION.

Thought exercises for the product you recently purchased:
- What solutions did you consider (consideration set)?
- What didn’t you like about the solutions you dicarded (firing criteria)?
- What did you like about the solution you picked (hiring criteria)?
- What was still missing in the chosen solution (tradeoffs)?

Act 3 is the final resolution step, where the customer uses the chosen solution typically over some “trial window” and determines whether to keep or return the product.

Thought exercises for the product you recently purchased:
- Did the product meet your orginal job requirements and expectations?
- Is it a keeper?

How to Use this Three-Act Customer Forces Structure to Define, Postion, and Build Better Products

Unpacking a customer journey into these three acts helps uncover several actionable insights you can use to improve your product.

1. Unpack Customer Forces Story

The best way to capture these stories is using customer problem discovery interviews. After each interview, you summarize the conversation into a 1-page customer forces story using the mad-lib template.

For an example, see Extending the Job Story into a Customer Forces Story.

Normalizing each interview using a story template makes it easier to find recurring patterns quickly across interviews.

2. Extract Key Insights

Here are the key insights from each act of the story:

Key Insights from Act I: Old Way Breaks

  • Switching trigger: Use this to understand when and where to introduce your new way (channel). The closer you show up to the triggering event, the less direct competition you encounter.
  • Desired outcome: Transcend features and benefits and instead focus on the bigger context job and desired outcomes your customers are chasing.
  • Intertia: Understand barriers to switching to design around them.

Key Insights from Act II: Hiring a New Way

  • Firing criteria: Understand why customers didn’t pick candidate solutions to uncover must-have features.
  • Hiring criteria: Understand why customers selected the chosen solution to uncover performance features.
  • Tradeoffs: Understand shortcomings with the chosen solution to explore delighter features.

These insights help you apply the Kano model to determine the right feature cocktail for your product.

For more on this, see:

Key Insights from Act III: Job Done?

  • Early adopter: Is your early adopter someone in Act I switching from the old way to your new way, or someone in Act III switching from the chosen solution to your new way?
  • Satisfaction: Can your new way deliver a better outcome?

3. Design Experiments to Test these Insights

Turn these insights into small, fast experiments that test your positioning, offer, or product with customers.

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