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 while 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 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.

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 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 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 a 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 — often accompanied by the hope of acquiring 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 where we encounter another fork in the road that shapes the story down two different paths.

2. Switching Story A (New Way Wins)

To keep the customer moving forward, the new way must overcome its onboarding friction while keeping the customer moving toward the 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 get the job done better than the old way did, creates off-scale happiness - past satisfaction and into delight.

All new products should strive to achieve this, as getting here creates a switching moment. This is the second pivotal moment when the customer decides to switch from the old to the new way permanently.

Unfortunately, delight also follows a natural decay curve. Every new car smell eventually wears off… and the customer returns to their original basal happiness level. But the players have changed. The new way has replaced the old way shown here as the new status quo.

The status quo story plays out from here on out until a new switching trigger plot twist comes along.

3. Switching Story B (Old Way Wins)

The story above could take a different turn after the customer hires the new way. It could take them from being dissatisfied to off-scale unhappiness or frustration if the new way’s onboarding process proves too complex or difficult to implement.

At this point, the customer hits bottom and, this time decides to fire the new way and revert to their old way. This reversion is usually quick since the old way is already familiar to them (status quo).

Notice that this time the happiness level of getting the job done with the old way is lower than before because the customer is still worked up about all the extra run-around they just did.

But this lower level of happiness is also short-lived, as they gradually return to their original basal happiness level.

The old status quo is reinstated.

The 3 Archetypical Story Shapes

I show all three archetypical story shapes below:

Remember that these are archetypical shapes, and there are a few additional variations – like a customer failing to find a new way and seemingly giving up (non-consumption story). It is also possible for these stories to span multiple user roles (e.g., complex B2B sales) and/or multiple products (e.g., SaaS trials).

What Do These Stories Tell Us?

They help surface all kinds of insights, such as:

  • What causes customers to buy (triggers)
  • How to identify early adopters (one who acts on triggers)
  • What do they buy (the old way)
  • What’s broken with the old way (opportunities for innovation)
  • What trade-offs do they make (perfect solutions are a myth)
  • The best time to approach customers with a new way (first crossing point)
  • The worst time to approach customers with a new way (second crossing point)
  • What solution to build to cause a hiring moment (new way UVP)
  • How to cause a switch (aha-moments + desired outcomes)
  • Or, if you already have customers, what solution/features to build to prevent a switch away (old way UVP)
  • and more…

What is the Best Way to Uncover These Stories?

The best way to uncover these customer stories is not through surveys, focus groups, problem validation interviews (customer, do you have this problem?), or problem ranking approaches (on a scale of 1 to 5, how bad is this problem?).

The best way to uncover these customer stories is through carefully unscripted (or meta-scripted) problem discovery interviews. All customer stories have drama, and the interviewer's job is to unpack this drama.

This is a skill that can be learned. There is a new book (Running Lean - updated edition), a workshop (45-Day Problem Discovery), and now a new tool (Customer Forces) that can help you automatically visualize your customer stories, prioritize problems worth solving, and design solutions for a switch.

Customer Forces - A Problem Discovery Tool
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