The Simple Shapes of Customer Stories
Inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s lecture on “the simple shapes of stories,” I’ve previously riffed on The Simple Shapes of Startups. More recently, however, I discovered that customer stories too have archetypical shapes.
These archetypical shapes take form when you plot customer happiness over time as customers hire and fire products in the course of getting the different jobs in their lives done.
If you are unfamiliar with the theory of jobs-to-be-done (jtbd) or the specific definition presented below, I’d recommend reviewing this post first.
A job to be done is the instantiation of an unmet need or want.
Understanding the basic shapes of customer stories can help you better understand your own customers, uncover new opportunities for innovation (problems worth solving), and build products and features that deliver on these opportunities.
1. The Status Quo Story
Our customer starts at some basal happiness level until they encounter a jtbd trigger, for example, hunger pangs. Since jtbd triggers open a gap between the customer’s current state (hungry) and desired state (satiated), they cause a slight dip in happiness level.
As customers are creatures of habit, they quickly recruit an existing solution (e.g. the refrigerator) and proceed to get the job done.
Notice that the customer ends at a higher level of happiness after the job is done as jobs are about making progress. But this higher level of happiness isn’t permanent. In short order, the customer returns back to their basal happiness level... until the next triggering event.
This story type is called the status quo story because this story plays out much the same way until the customer encounters the first plot twist.
Meet the Switching Trigger (first plot twist)
A switching trigger is an additional event that occurs either before or after the jtbd-trigger causing the old way to “break”. This “break” could be literal (e.g. iPhone breaks) or just in the mind of the customer (e.g. Apple announces new iPhone). It could be aspirational (e.g. new technology will deliver better outcomes) or consequential (e.g. regulatory will change how things need to be done). But for a switching trigger to cause a customer to take further action, it must cause their happiness level to cross over from satisfaction to dissatisfaction.
This is a pivotal point in the story.
Switching trigger = JTBD Trigger + Expectation Violation
Now that the customer is out of a working solution, they need to find a new way to get the job done. This begins their search for a new solution, which wavers from passive to active looking until they hire a new way.
Hiring a new way is an accomplishment of its own — one that is often accompanied with the hope of having acquired something better.
This causes a rise in happiness.
This happiness, too, is fleeting as the customer realizes that they’ve gone from being an expert in the old way to a beginner in a new way.
This is the dip of onboarding.
They’ll have to invest additional effort in learning how to use the new way. This is also the point where we encounter another fork in the road that shapes the story down two different paths.
2. Switching Story A (New Way Wins)
In order to keep the customer moving forward, the new way must overcome its own onboarding friction while keeping the customer moving towards job done. The best way to accomplish this is to break the journey into one or more intermediate aha moments (activation). These moments reaffirm faith in the new way and raise the customer’s happiness (and motivation).
Getting the customer to job done better than the old way did, creates off-scale happiness - past satisfaction and into delight.
This is what all new products should strive to achieve, as getting here creates a switching moment. This is the second pivotal moment when the customer decides to make the switch from the old way to the new way permanent.
Unfortunately, delight also follows a natural decay curve. Every new car smell eventually wears off… and the customer subsequently moves back to their original basal happiness level. But the players have changed. The new way has taken the place of the old way shown here as the new status quo.
From here on out, the status quo story plays out until a new switching trigger plot twist comes along.