Extending the Job Story to a Customer Forces Story

A 3 act story structure for capturing jobs-to-be-done

Customer Forces Stories are a powerful way of summarizing customer conversations during your search for problem/solution fit.

A Customer Forces Story describes the causal forces that shape a customer’s journey as they hire a specific product to get a job done and move from an initial triggering event to some resolution event, like acquisition, activation, or cancellation.


  • Hiring a product isn’t limited to buying. Think of it as choosing a specific product for a specific job.
  • A product could be chosen for the first time or the hundredth time.
  • This chosen product could be your product or an existing alternative.

The reason we use stories is they help us playback what the customer did in chronological order. From there, we attempt to make sense of the timeline by attributing a series of triggering events and forces that help explain their choices and actions along the way.

It’s important to emphasize that crafting a Customer Forces Story is a post-interview process and not something you do during the interview. Here’s why.

Writing a Customer Forces Story is like writing a book report.

Before you can summarize a book, you have first to read it in its entirety. Also, simply highlighting key passages or copy-n-pasting them into your summary seldom leads to an insightful summary. You have to synthesize what you read and rewrite it in your own words. This is especially true with customer interviews, where insights don’t typically unravel chronologically due to the nature of discovery but instead are scattered throughout the interview.

To make this process a little easier, I developed a Story Builder tool that employs pluggable Madlib story blocks:

Not all Madlib blocks are needed in all stories. Some stories only cover acquisition, while others focus on usage or cancellation. The great thing with pluggable Madlibs is that you only fill in what you discovered during the interview, and the story should still work.

In this post, I will illustrate the Story Builder tool in action using one of these story types: The Existing Alternative Story. This type of story is used to uncover new spaces for innovation by studying how people choose old products (existing alternatives).

Here’s the scenario: We are exploring the opportunity space in the headphones market and have decided to study people who recently purchased headphones. Specifically, we are looking to uncover the following:

  1. What triggers people to buy headphones?
  2. Why they bought them — for what job, to achieve what desired outcome?
  3. What solutions did they consider and not pick?
  4. What solution did they pick and why?
  5. What struggles did they encounter along the way?

From a timeline perspective, we are bracketing the conversation from the triggering event that sets the customer in motion to search for new headphones up to wherever they are today with the headphones. If they recently purchased the product (which was the case here), the conversation primarily centers around the acquisition process.

It’s helpful to break the Customer Forces Story into three acts: beginning, middle, and end.

  • Act 1 (Beginning) makes up roughly 25% of the story
  • Act 2 (Middle) makes up roughly 50% of the story, and
  • Act 3 (End) makes up roughly 25% of the story.

Note: How to conduct these types of interviews is out of the scope of this article, but understanding the Customer Forces Story structure and Madlibs story blocks first goes a long way towards conducting better interviews.

Let’s jump in.

Jack Buys New Headphones

One of the people we interviewed (Jack) bought these headphones:

Let’s unpack his story.

All stories have motion.

In Act 1, we are trying to determine the series of events that moved Jack from some old state without these headphones (status quo) to him considering buying them (passive looking).

From the interview, we learn that Jack

  1. Recently joined a running program to train for a half-marathon.
  2. He didn’t run regularly but worked out at a gym where he would listen to music during his workouts for motivation.
  3. He tried doing the same while running, but his earbuds kept dropping out.
  4. That pushed him to consider buying something better suited for running.
  5. Later that day, he started doing some light research on “best running headphones.” (passive looking)

This is how I summarize the story:

A good sanity check here is to see if PUSH + PULL > INERTIA.

What if Jack had no old earbuds? You’d simply skip the Madlibs that cover the old way:

Here, the push of the situation (joining a new training program) and the pull of the desired outcome would have been sufficient to get Jack to move into passive looking.

In Act II, we try to understand how Jack researches, evaluates and picks his chosen solution. This is the heart of the conversation where we ask him about

  1. His definition of an ideal solution.
  2. What he’s worried about?
  3. The choices he considers along the way but doesn’t pick.
  4. Why he picks his chosen solution?
  5. What, if any, tradeoffs he makes?

While it would be great to unpack onboarding (first-use) and a specific instance when Jack used the chosen product recently for a run in as much detail, it’s usually not possible to also fit that into a typical 45-minute customer interview.

That is why I recommend limiting the scope of the Existing Alternative Interview primarily to acquisition and scheduling other interviews for other story types. I’ll cover the other story types with examples in future posts.

Wrapping up the interview with Jack, our goal was to understand if

  • he is still using the chosen solution for the job he hired it for (big hire).
  • Are there any new jobs he’s also using the product for (little hires)?
  • Are there certain jobs he’s not using the product for?
  • What’s his overall satisfaction level with the chosen solution?

Yes, these Madlibs are intentionally worded and structured in a specific way to normalize and encode any “switching” story consistently.

Doing this opens the door to systematically

  • creating jobs-based customer segments
  • prioritizing problems worth pursuing
  • designing “better” solutions

I’ll build on this headphones study in future posts to show the progression of these steps from here.

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