The Backstory Behind Customer Forces Stories

Adventures in simplifying complexity.

In a recent post, I summarized the top findings from our adventures in turning the art of customer (jobs/problem) discovery into a more practicable (and teachable) series of steps.

In this post, I’d like to focus on the backstory behind the development of one of the key pieces that unlocked the puzzle: The Customer Forces Story.

The Challenge

Teach teams new to customer discovery how to effectively interview customers, capture insights, and share them with others.

Solution #1: The Customer Forces Canvas

When I first started interviewing customers (circa 2010), I relied on my notes which I then summarized on a 1-page form customized for the product under study. These insights then got added as rows in a spreadsheet.

Then I met Bob Moesta, Chris Spiek, and Ervin Fowlkes in February 2015 for a joint Running Lean / JTBD workshop we delivered together. There I learned about two powerful models they used for capturing customer interview insights:

  1. The JTBD Forces of Progress
    Describes the causal forces that influence a customer to select and use a specific solution for a job-to-be-done.
  1. JTBD Timeline
    Describes the stages a customer follows when selecting and using a solution for a specific job-to-be-done.

Bob Moesta describes these models in his book: Demand-side Sales 101.

The universality of these models is what particularly struck me. We now had a way of turning ad-hoc notes and customer journey sketches into a normalized customer behavior model that worked across products.

As I often do, I like to incorporate physical metaphors (like the customer factory) in my work. I also wondered if these two models could be combined into one.

That tinkering led to the Customer Forces model that I first wrote about here.

The hill-climbing metaphor was simultaneously able to

  1. Communicate that achieving progress in our lives requires effort (going uphill),
  2. Draw upon our real-world experience with physical forces, like inertia and friction, to better relate to concepts like habits (status quo) and anxieties,
  3. Visualize the model as a timeline - starting with the customer at the bottom of the hill and journeying their way to the top through a series of milestones.

What was missing now was a place to capture these insights after interviews.

That led to the 1-page Customer Forces Canvas template. The latest iteration (v4) is shown below:

As I began to practice and teach this method of customer interviewing, we’d instruct teams to post-process their interview notes into the Customer Forces Canvas — one per interview.

Problems with Solution #1: Collapsed Timeline

Even though the hill-climbing metaphor implicitly incorporates a timeline, the completed canvas results in a collapsed snapshot of the customer journey. In other words, insights get lumped together, and the nuanced interplay of forces influencing the customer throughout the different stages gets lost.

Much like when climbing a hill, the forces acting on us vary throughout the journey.

  • The story begins with a PUSH of the situation (triggering event) and the PULL of a desired outcome, but we don’t act until these forces overcome our inherent INERTIA.
  • Then as we make our way up the hill, we have to deal with FRICTION and some of these forces get stronger or weaker along the way.
  • For us to move upwards, the positive forces (PUSH + PULL) must be greater than the negative forces (INERTIA + FRICTION), or gravity pulls us downward.

Understanding the interplay of these forces at each stage in the timeline uncovers deeper insights into causality and potentially unlocks new ideas for marketing, sales, and product development.

I wanted to see if we could capture all this, which led to solution #2.

Solution #2: Customer Forces Scenes

The inspiration here was realizing that the customer journey is a story, and all stories have structure.

Stories can be broken into a Global Story, Beats, Acts, Sequences, and Scenes. And each of these story elements has a repeating story arc that pushes a story forward:

Think of the collapsed Customer Forces Canvas as the Global Story. The elements on the Customer Forces Canvas map quite perfectly to the story arc elements:

  • Inciting Incident == Triggering Event
  • Progressive Complication == Obstacle
  • Crisis == Consideration Set
  • Climax == Chosen Solution
  • Resolution == Actual Outcome

I wondered if the Global Story could be broken into a series of distinct scenes. I identified six distinct scenes — one for each transition in the timeline above.

To capture all these insights, though, meant the interviewer needed to sort their notes into these six distinct scenes — which meant creating/updating six distinct Customer Forces Canvases.

Here is a workbook I created for the first three scenes.

Scenes Guidebook

2.54MB ∙ PDF file

Download

Customer Forces Scenes 1-3

Problems with Solution #2: Too Much Work

Why should I do this much work after each interview? What’s the payoff? The thought of creating six different scenes was too daunting for teams just learning this model. We only saw 20% completion with mixed results.

While I still think breaking a story into distinct scenes has a place later in the analysis workflow, I decided to pivot to a different solution.

Solution #3: Story Guardrails

None of the thinking thus far had been particularly flawed — simplifying mental models, using metaphors, and incorporating story structure all seemed sound. Yet, somehow our attempts at simplifying complexity made things even more complex.

Upon further reflection, I realized that stories weren’t the problem. We are wired for stories, but writing good stories on a blank page is hard. So what if we provided some guardrails to enforce the story's structure and guide the interviewer? Pixar does this, so why can’t we?

I chose to employ the help of mad-libs building upon the job story structure, first popularized by the product team at Intercom and Alan Klement:

…and extending it to write out an entire 3-act Customer Forces Story Mad-lib.

This mad-libs structure proved highly effective, not only in getting teams to summarize their insights as stories but teaching the Customer Forces model also got easier.

Completion rates soared to 100%. Yes, every founder in our small test sample completed a Customer Forces Story mad-lib after an interview.

In my next post, I’ll dissect the Customer Forces Story mad-lib further with examples.

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