Why the new 16” MacBook Pro is a testament to Jobs-to-be-Done Theory

Apple’s correction course — undoing poor design decisions and ignoring theory

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I’m a little late getting this one out the door, having not written an update last week at all. My apologies. Life got in the way, preventing me from taking the time to sit down, research and write the email. It’s a long process and demands a lot of concentration-time, something that is increasingly difficult to find for good reasons. Truth be told, I’d been working on several projects concurrently and hadn’t gouged time in the week to produce something of quality. Ho-hum. I’ll do better next time.

One to the update.

The new MacBook Pro, CAST data and Outcome-Driven Innovation


Image: Apple Inc.

Six days ago, Apple Inc. announced and released a new redesign to its venerable workhorse, the MacBook Pro. This release shows us why the Jobs-to-be-Done theory is so critical and so powerful when we use its potential in business decisions.

First, a little history about the MacBook Pro.

The MacBook Pro started life in 2006 when Apple transitioned its entire line of computers from the PowerPC processor platform to Intel. The transition was a big deal and was expertly managed, providing current users with a sustainable upgrade path and new users the ability to run existing PowerPC-based applications with the need to purchase upgrades or other things to continue their work. The transition worked so well with specifically, a high-quality PowerPC emulation, that some argued that it slowed potential sales of the new laptop devices that Apple renamed as the MacBook Pro. On the PowerPC platform, they were referred to as PowerBooks. Interestingly, Apple did two things with the name change; they differentiated the old from the new with a new strand of computers names, and at the same time disassociated the name of the laptops with the processor family, having been burnt with the slow evolution of IBM’s PowerPC. It would never happen again.

The MacBook Pro gained popularity in the pro-market reasonably quickly and eventually became one of Apple’s best-selling computers to the general public, despite its high-end pricing. The MacBook Pro became “the” computer to own. It could do everything. It was as fast as a desktop; it was portable and had a decent battery life for a device as mobile as it was.

It exuded quality and attention to detail in its design. It was a joy to use and offered a breath of fresh air to users who had bought one instead of a standard corp-type laptop from the period. From a hardware perspective, it had two simultaneous stand-out features that no other notebook had at the time, a near-perfect trackpad and an excellent keyboard. Some had decent, and in some circumstances, great keyboards (ThinkPad anyone?) and there were a couple with a half-decent trackpad, none had both.

Subsequent revisions and evolutions to the MacBook Pro brought lighter, thinner laptops and a new design debuted in 2008 using a single slab of Aluminium to carve out the shell of the notebook, baptised Unibody by Apple. This design enabled a slew of innovations as the electronics could be better fit into the chassis with better reliability due to its robust structure. IT gained widescreen, a larger trackpad. All advances that responded to the wants and needs of the professional class and general users alike. The designs pushed the envelope and allowed Apple to gain significantly its market-share of portable computers sold worldwide.

Outcomes drove design decisions, and the sales figures and customer satisfaction statistics confirmed this. Apple has consistently been top of the list for Personal Computers in the American Customer Satisfaction Index since 2004 with a score of 83 out of 100. What Apple was practising was, in fact, Outcome-Driven Innovation.

Jobs-to-be-Done theory

Jobs-to-be-Done theory started life called “Outcome-Driven Innovation” and funnily-enough, was a theory developed out of a disaster experienced by IBM when they tried to create a new type of PC market with a computer that few will remember, the PCjr.

IBM’s PCjr was marketed by IBM for just over one year, March 1984 to May 1985, and shipped a terrible quantity of just 500000 units. Remember, shipped units have nothing to do with “Sold numbers, and IBM had only managed to sell around 250000 units by January 1985. It was an embarrassment for IBM and would hold back their production of home-oriented computers by nearly five years when they introduced the PS/1.

Tony Ulwick, who was on IBM’s product team as an engineer, wondered how, when the PCjr was announced, why the press were able to predict that the computer would flop accurately. He asked if they used data and metrics to evaluate the chances of success or failure and if those metrics were right or not. After several months he came up with a hypothesis:

“It seemed to me that if a product team could know what metrics its customers were going to use to judge its new offering well in advance of product development, it could design the product to address those metrics and predictably deliver a winning solution.”

The hypothesis generated many complex questions like what metrics? Captured how, by whom, when?

The answer to these questions and others eventually led to Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI). ODI was subsequently tested outside IBM in 1991:

“… to help Cordis Corporation introduce a new line of angioplasty balloons. This led to a dramatic increase in market share (from about 1% to over 20%) and was the first of many successes.”

Clayton Christensen published the first edition, of what became a hugely influential book, The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997. Soon after Tony Ulwick presented his recently developed and tested ideas, ODI, as a solution to the issues outlined in Christensen’s book. The Innovator’s Solution first published in 2003, described how ODI could be used by businesses to develop and market innovations that would respond directly to the jobs that people were trying to perform, alternatively called, jobs to be done. The book renamed ODI as Jobs-to-be-Done Theory.

Theories are nothing more than a set of principles or beliefs that are proffered to help explain things that have already been observed with data. A huge sales increase in one line of products compared to another is found, then a theory is derived to try and explain why, with the aim to repeat that success for a new product line. Jobs-to-be-Done theory is no different; the original data was a tank in sales of a newly introduced computer with an approach developed, ODI, that was corroborated by its use in a completely different context. Jobs-to-be-Done Theory attempts to explain how we can make innovation more predictable, something I’m sure many businesses would love to do, particularly in the digital context of today’s markets.

The theory describes nine beliefs as the way to start to develop predictable growth:

  1. People buy products and services to get a “job” done.

  2. Jobs are functional, with emotional and social components.

  3. A Job-to-be-Done is stable over time.

  4. A Job-to-be-Done is solution agnostic.

  5. Success comes from making the “job”, rather than the product or the customer, the unit of analysis.

  6. A deep understanding of the customer’s “job” makes marketing more effective and innovation far more predictable.

  7. People want products and services that will help them get a job done better and/or more cheaply

  8. People seek out products and services that enable them to get the entire job done on a single platform

  9. Innovation becomes predictable when “needs” are defined as the metrics customers use to measure success when getting the job done

Understanding these brings insights into a company or department, fostering better innovation development.

Looking at each of these beliefs through the lens of the MacBook Pro, we can see how Apple may have used this theory to design one of the best computers money can buy.

The Jobs-to-be-Done of the MacBook Pro

When people buy a product or a service, they do so to get a “job” done. In the case of the MacBook Pro there are hundreds, possibly thousands of jobs to be done. Photographers need to edit their photos. Filmmakers need to produce their works and podcasters need to record, edit and upload the next episode from a hotel room. But there are many other jobs that need fulfilling, those of office workers needing to have a good screen and portability to take around to the various meetings in the buildings in which they work. Nothing new here and nothing the previous generations couldn’t do. But there was one job that was fulfilled by early generations that got ignored or simply excluded because it wasn’t deemed necessary, that of the writer needing to type on the laptop for hours per day, reliably.

When Apple introduced the 4th generation 13” and 15” models, Apple declared proudly that they had redesigned the keyboard, inaugurating a new butterfly mechanism that replaced the long-running scissor mechanism. It was universally panned and soon after there are lots of reports about the keyboard’s reliability, or lack thereof. Apple doubled down, eventually producing three versions of the butterfly keyboard that was said to be more reliable. But the problem wasn’t just the reliability. It was also the experience of using the keyboard. Some liked it — personally, I’m indifferent — and others hated it.

Which is where the second belief applies. Emotional and social components are sometimes more important than the functional ones. Many non-professionals used MacBook Pros to have or to show they had Apple’s latest and greatest, is both emotional and social Apple nailed the JTBD. However, many professionals publicly slammed the keyboard because the emotional experience of typing on it for long periods was sub-optimal. The emotional component was not being catered for, in this instance.

We note that the Jobs-to-be-Done was stable over time, sales figures and the uses of the MacBook Pro tend to agree with this, but the danger for Apple was the fourth belief; it is solution agnostic. There were many rumours and many YouTube videos of pros and amateurs alike, looking at moving to other brands’s laptops to get their work done, despite leaving the very-agreeable world of macOS.

I’m guessing Apple will see a significant uptick in the sales of this new generation, aligning to the fifth belief; the “job” is the unit of analysis and not the product. A better experience will inevitably lead to better sales. Particularly for a cohort of already-onboard fans and professionals. Leading neatly to the sixth belief, centred around marketing, looking at Apple’s newsroom page announcing the MacBook Pro, there it is in the first sentence of the second paragraph:

“Featuring a new Magic Keyboard with a redesigned scissor mechanism and 1mm travel for a more satisfying key feel, the 16-inch MacBook Pro delivers the best typing experience ever in a Mac notebook.

Third paragraph (emphasis mine):

“Our pro customers tell us they want their next MacBook Pro to have a larger display, blazing-fast performance, the biggest battery possible, the best notebook keyboard ever, awesome speakers and massive amounts of storage, and the 16-inch MacBook Pro delivers all of that and more,” said Tom Boger, Apple’s senior director of Mac and iPad Product Marketing. 

Belief seven is targeted in the fact that new MacBook Pro is squarely aimed at getting more work done, easier and faster on one device (belief 8). I think we can expect more marketing (which is just an expression of the data being collected about the Jobs-to-be-Done) about how the new model is saving/enhancing/fulfilling lives of its users. Apple will use the poor feedback from previous the generations’ to better design the future.

For what it’s worth, my entire business was built using this theory. In nearly a year of business, meeting potential clients, I haven’t had a single remark from an owner that my services are not something they want or need. It is unanimously positive and responds almost entirely to what businesses are seeking for in help and guidance on Digital Transformation.

I thank Tony Ulwick and his article on Medium that first exposed the theory to me: https://jobs-to-be-done.com/the-5-tenets-of-jobs-to-be-done-theory-ba58c3a093c1

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Matthew Cowen @matthewcowen