#jcarn: Finding the communication ‘jobs to be done’

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft. This month’s prompt  from Donica Mensing: 

How do you get your own creative juices flowing? What sparks innovation in your own thinking, your newsroom or classroom?

As an editor and newsroom manager, I had been drawn to Michael Porter’s ideas of strategy, especially his 2001 essay “Strategy and the Internet.” Too often, I had watched my organization and others slash and trim to improve their bottom lines for short-term gains. Porter’s call for strategic positioning over operational effectiveness made more sense: Don’t sacrifice long-term advantage for ephemeral successes meant to appease the stock market.

It was a compelling idea that lingered with me as I pursued my doctorate and moved into research. As I worked my way through the program, I sifted through a number of ideas, hoping to find some frameworks and guides to help the news industry transition successfully to the world of the Web without sacrificing its long-term viability.

Then, Clayton Christensen disrupted my thinking.

Porter focused on the competitive environment at the industry level. Christensen’s research on innovation — most clearly articulated in his book “The Innovator’s Solution” with Michael Raynor — built on Porter’s work and put the focus in a news context squarely on the audience.

Christensen offered tangible advice for thinking meaningfully at the audience level. Don’t ask the audience directly what it wants; they often don’t know consciously. Instead, think in terms of jobs to be done. Through observation and contemplation, consider what audience members are “hiring” your content to do.

Emergent strategy

Too often, businesses overshoot consumer needs. Companies and their structures typically reward sustaining strategy, safer development supported by market research and proven products. They stick with what they’ve always done and applaud improving their best products.

The problem: They often end up overshooting consumer needs.


Adapted from “The Innovator’s Solution” by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor

Into this environment comes disruption from new or lower-end products that fulfill jobs more in line with audience expectations. And by the time incumbents realize their flawed perspective, it is too late to recover.

Instead, they should rely on emergent strategy, bringing testable concepts to market more quickly with a willingness to fail. In “Seeing What’s Next,” Christensen and co-authors Erik Roth and Scott Anthony note:

When the functionality and reliability of products overshoot customer needs, then convenience, customization, and low prices become what are not good enough.

Well before their legacy counterparts, new sites embraced and experimented with aggregation and online story forms. Craigslist and Monster.com understood more quickly how to deliver cheaper, customized classifieds. And social media developed more convenient mechanisms for content discovery and sharing.

To survive in this environment, news organizations must become as experimental and nimble as the upstarts. They no longer have the luxury of lengthy content testing; they must push nascent products into the marketplace and iterate while learning from the audience.

With this framework, they can identify and fulfill the communication jobs to be done.

Uses and gratifications

Historically, mass-communication researchers have concentrated on the impact mass media have on the audience. In the Internet age, however, the power has shifted to the audience, as Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky, and other media scholars have noted.

As the traditional mass media weaken, the uses-and-gratifications thread of media research offers a more useful framework for uncovering the audience’s jobs to be done. Tapping into the long line of uses-and-gratifications research (as media scholars Esther Thorson and Margaret Duffy did with their Media Choice Model), we can focus on the primary communication needs — the “jobs” in Christensen’s parlance — that users want to satisfy: information, entertainment, connectivity, and consumption (shopping).

In the searchable, clickable world of the Web, it is so much easier for the audience to satisfy those needs quickly. In my content-creation classes today, I repeat usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s mantra:

In addition to the detailed insights offered by individual models, it’s healthy to remember that users are selfish, lazy, and ruthless in applying their cost-benefit analyses.

As we develop the next generation of news content, we must embrace the audience and its needs. Such a focus doesn’t mean we should shamelessly cater to all audience wants and desires. It just means we must consider the audience and the contexts of media consumption more completely as we develop our content, whatever form it may take.

Otherwise, our audience will selfishly, ruthlessly go elsewhere.

Remember 2006? How the Internet has changed in the past five years

Glimpse the Internet of 2006:

Most users accessed the Web via Internet Explorer. Facebook had just opened its doors to those outside college campuses. MySpace, dubbed the “27.4-billion-pound gorilla” by TechCrunch, had more than 75 million users.

Oh, how the Internet has changed in the past five years.

As we become inundated by the latest, shiniest Internet tools, it’s important to take a look back and breathe deeply. The prognosticators often skew reality and miss their predictive marks by miles. The most important lesson to me? Technologies and innovations change faster than most of us can predict.

I began this exercise while preparing for this fall’s Web Communication class. I was flipping through the third edition of the dated but still excellent Web Design in a Nutshell, and reviewed the chapters on usage. Internet Explorer dominated the browser landscape. “Web 2.0” was a mystical phrase. Mobile was something to consider, but most usage was expected to come through desktop monitors at 800 x 600 pixels.

It sparked a quick dive back into history.

Browser statistics

I dug into browsers statistics from W3schools.com:


The statistics reinforce an adage from Harvard innovation theorist Clayton Christensen and his co-authors, Scott D. Anthony and Erik A. Roth (emphasis mine):

When the functionality and reliability of products overshoot customer needs, then convenience, customization, and low prices become what are not good enough.

In this case, by 2006, most users were satisfied with how their browsers functioned. Most could display Web pages and graphics adequately, and HTML/CSS standards were helping to mitigate the frustration of the browser wars. What people wanted was convenience through faster rendering engines and customizability through plug-ins and skins.

By 2011, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox had become major players by fulfilling these needs.

The lesson here? Speed, ease of use, and customization are critical for widespread acceptance of any new technology.

Web 2.0 and social media

Social media was coming to the fore in 2006, with MySpace garnering much attention and fanfare. People were still trying to figure out exactly what “Web 2.0” meant, and media “gurus” were more focused on e-mail tips than Facebook marketing strategies.

Today, Facebook and Twitter garner most of the attention, but location-based technologies such as Foursquare and Groupon have started capturing users as well. Some have been buzzing about Google Plus, Tumblr, and Quora.

For me, the takeaway is don’t become too enamored of any one technology. The landscape changes quickly; you should understand how the systems operate. That way, you can adapt as the technology changes — because it always will.

Remember BASIC?

The advent of mobile

In Web Design in a Nutshell, mobile was just emerging as a data platform. The iPhone hadn’t been introduced, and the BlackBerry (dubbed “Crackberry” by regular users) was the smartphone of choice. But such phones were typically too expensive for most users.

In 2006, most still used their cell phones as phones, and the big concern was the thought that some people might actually replace their landlines with the technology.

Today, 83% of adults have a cell phone, up from 73% in 2006. And of today’s cell phone users, 42% have a smartphone. With the introduction of the Apple iPad and Android tablet computers, mobile has become the primary medium of interest.

Mobile is a natural evolution of the self-referential nature of media usage: We want information when we want it, where we need it. We don’t want to wait.

Browser statistics point to the need for customization and speed. The rise of mobile shows us how important time-shifting and immediacy have become.

The big takeaway

My goal isn’t to inspire nostalgia for a simpler, less saturated era. What strikes me about the evolution of the Internet is the consumers and individual users are the ones dictating how technology will evolve.

Our goal should be figuring what jobs we need done (to lift more of Christensen’s language) for those users, and finding the best tools to accomplish those tasks.