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Better products through chemistry

David Wu // 03.24.14

As a product manager, I’m a big fan of the Jobs To Be Done framework for finding causal reasons why people switch from one product to another.

In the framework, we often talk about the importance of energy. Energy manifests itself as the emotion and motivation customers have to make progress — to make a potential switch to our products. Understanding how energy works, helps to make our products better.

Activation Energy

In high school chemistry we learned about something called “activation energy”. In any experiment, there needs to be enough activation energy for a chemical reaction to occur. Once the activation energy is achieved, the reaction just tumbles along.

In the above diagram, we start at the top left and at a certain state. Imagine the reaction is a small marble perched in the top ledge of the graph. What we need to do is supply just enough “push” to the marble to get over that hump and then the marble will roll down the hill and produce change. The hump that needs to be overcome is called the activation energy.

In the same way, people looking to make progress must overcome a similar activation energy hump to move to a purchase. The hump in this case are the forces that are working against them — The Anxiety of the new and the Habit of the present.

“Anxiety of the new” is the fear of the future solution. Think about the fear you might feel when changing to a new job — it’s awesome because it’s a new job, at the same time, there’s lots of anxiety about the new situation (Will I get along with my co-workers, will my boss like me?).

The “Habit of the present” is the current situation being “good enough” to satisfy any needs. Think about how hard it was to leave your old job (I know how things are done at this office. I have a lot of vacation saved up).

Potential customers need to get enough energy to overcome these hurdles and these come in the form of two forces: Magnetism of the new and Push of the situation.

The “Magnetism of the new” is the draw of the future solution. It’s the vision of how life could be in the new world. (Maybe the new job you’re thinking of is working on really big meaty problems. Maybe the new job has a super-smart team you admire).

The “Push of the situation” is the pain of the current solution. It’s the problem with the present that makes life intolerable. (Maybe your current boss is not the greatest. Maybe the work isn’t challenging you anymore).

Applying More Energy

Now in chemistry, there are two ways to overcome the hump of activation energy. One way is to supply more energy — turn up the heat on the bunsen burner, if you will.

In product marketing, often times we will “supply more energy” by playing up the “Magnetism of the New”. We’ll tout the features and power of our new solution in an effort to increase the energy. What we don’t realize is that in some chemical reactions there is something called “Negative activation energy”. When you turn up the heat, you actually decrease the rate of reaction! In the job example, the awesome new team you get to work with, might be intimidating at the same time! (Will I be able to keep up with these guys?).

In Jobs To Be Done theory, this happens because as you increase the “Magnetism of the New” — you’re also increasing the “Anxiety of the New” at the same time. The more you say how awesome the new thing is, the more you make the person fearful of the new thing. It’s negative activation energy.

Using a Catalyst

Instead of just applying more energy, we can look to the other way of overcoming activation energy — the use of a catalyst. In chemistry, the catalyst is a substance that modifies the reaction so that the activation energy is lowered. Instead of supplying more energy, it lowers the amount of energy necessary to trigger the reaction.

For our products, sometimes the answer isn’t more features and marketing, it’s supplying the correct catalyst. In Jobs To Be Done, this is often accomplished by reducing anxiety. Instead of a hard push on the attractiveness of our new solution, we can work to reduce the anxiety our solution causes.

It’s important to identify the right catalyst. If customers have fears about the complexity of our new solution, we can address it with tutorials or free trials. If customers are anxious about committing to a long term contract, we can show them money-back guarantees. There are many catalysts — the important thing is finding the right anxiety customers are experiencing.

Energy is an important aspect of purchase decisions. Where there is low-energy, it’s really hard for us to help people make progress. There’s just not enough impetus to move forward from where they are now. However, if we find the right catalyst, we can lower the energy needed to make progress and that’s just as good!

  • Nick

    Great summary of the 4 forces. One of the best I’ve read. And fun to view them in the chemistry context!

  • Tor Løvskogen Bollingmo

    I think the chemistry metaphor makes it harder to grasp what the core of the article is about.

  • bmoesta

    i love the reorientation of the forces – feel like we are ripped in half. I always saw the the other way as a person in constant tension. I think your right we are more “Torn” and “stressed” or in “Tension”

    Great post david – thanks for you time and effort to articulate.

    Bob