Functional fixedness and JTBD

Why it’s so hard to come up with relevant solutions even after talking to people and how to fix it?


Some founders fail because they don’t talk to real people. But some do even AFTER they talk to them. Why does it happen and how to overcome it?


Customer interviews (aka “talking to real people”) is a part of a standard customer discovery process that has been adopted by most successful startups. Some founders who are doing great don’t call it this way but when describing their journey they always mentioned how they got the insights about the problem they are solving. And it always turn out to be conversations with the real people. They might not have carried out anything formal but it still distills down to the conversations.


The goal of the customer discovery stage is to figure out who are those people you’re about to sell your product for. Where are they coming from and what is their end game. It is all pulled together in a “jobs-to-be-done” framework (JTBD). The best way to illustrate how it work is to use the classic study on the milkshakes that was the beginning of the whole concept.


The milkshake study

Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and Harvard Business School professor, tells a story about a fast-food chain trying to increase milkshake sales (some believe it was McDonalds). The company looked at sales data and demographics. They asked target customers to describe their ideal milkshakes and strove to meet those criteria. But sales didn’t budge.

Then the fast-food chain hired the researcher to take a different approach to figuring out how they could sell more milkshakes. The researcher discovered that 40% of the milkshakes were purchased first thing in the morning, by commuters who ordered them to go.


He interviewed customers who left with milkshake in hand, asking them what “job they had hired the milkshake to do”.

Most of them, it turned out, bought the milkshake “to do a similar job”: they faced a long, boring commute and needed something to keep that extra hand busy and to make the commute more interesting. They weren’t yet hungry, but knew that they’d be hungry by 10 am; they wanted to consume something now that would stave off hunger until noon. And they faced constraints: They were in a hurry, they were wearing work clothes, and they had (at most) one free hand.


So, what did the fast-food chain had before the JTBD-focused interviews:

😬 we need to sell more milkshakes but we don’t know how because nothing we tried (TV ads, price reduction) worked


What did it have after the interviews:

🤩 we have to find more ways to reduce the pain of a hungry, bored, one-handed commuter who’s rushing to work in the morning hours.


What did they do?

✅ added smoothies or coffee shakes to the menu

✅ added other food that could be packaged to fit in a cup holder and easily eaten with one hand

✅ launched a prepaid commuter card that allowed people to pay in advance (lock-in) and zip through the drive-through line faster

✅ stands where people could buy milkshakes only and skip the main line.


Why it fails sometimes

Still, even the best of us still fail sometimes to find a solution to a problem that we become fully aware of and know everything we need to know about people who have it. One thing is to blame: functional fixedness.

This is a bias that was discovered due to another brilliant research. In 1945 a German psychologist Karl Duncker ran a simple experiment.


A scientist provided a group of participants with:

— a candle

— matches

— a box of thumbtacks


matches, thumbtacks and candle
Functional fixedness test

The task was to stick a candle to the wall using them so that the candle doesn't drip on the table under it when lit.

What did most do? They tried to glue a candle to the wall by melting one side of it. Obviously, it did not work: the candle kept falling down, the wax was dripping and burned their hands.

Only a few found an "out of the box" solution — putting the candle in the box and using it as a candle holder.



wall, candle in a box
Functional fixedness test result


The same happens over and over again: we pay much more attention on COMPLETING the task than on OPTIMISING it. It happens to customers who are not very inclined to try new solutions only because they are more efficient. This also happens to founders who analyse data about customers and their needs but can’t come up with relevant ideas on how to solve the problem.



How can you overcome functional fixedness as a founder

There are several techniques to do it.


1. Tech awareness

First of all, of course, stay informed about tech development. We have new opportunities being opened by tech development every single day.


✅ Most of “automatic content creation” sucked — until GPT-3 was released. And we instantly say a bunch of successful startups taking off in this field (Copy.ai, markcopy.ai)

✅ We wanted to solve the same problem with visuals — and now we have DALL-E released. Waiting for the new startups to pop up tomorrow.

✅ Manufacturers could not get access to the customers and had to use complicated distribution channels — Instagram ad TikTok opened up the wave of DTC brands

✅ Founders without tech background could not build a tach startup — enters Bubble.io — and now they can.

Examples would be endless. If you know wat’s brewing you can always be in front of the line and benefit from it.



Going to the next level of generalisation

Some simple things you can also do during the customer interview or during the follow up session (I prefer to go with the follow up as it helps to build a stronger connection between you as a founder and a customer). For example, moving to the next level of abstraction

What does it mean?


❌ Don’t ask how a person orders food online

✅ Ask how they feed their family.


❌ Don’t ask how one uploads files

✅ Ask how they share information with team members.


It might provide you with a very unexpected angle on the whole problem. For example, a founder I talked to was building a product aimed at truck drivers. They wanted to become a platform for drivers to get side gigs. But they struggled with making drivers download the app — let alone using it. Eventually, they decided to talk to some of them and asked: — Can you describe how do you interact with your HQ?

It turned out they received tasks via email but upon the delivery they telephoned (!) the office to ask is there’s another task for them. As soon as a startup started using text messages as a way to inform the drivers about the possible side gigs their drivers’ base skyrocketed!


Stepping into your customers shoes

Sometimes abstract knowledge gained via interview is not enough to come up with an idea of a relevant solution. Why don’t you ask your customer to train you enough for you to perform the task instead of them? It’s not always possible (for example, if the end game is growing audience on Twitter asking someone to train you to do it makes no sense). But in many cases it does: — Report to a manger in time

— Share the insights with the team

— Book a hotel using the steps that your customer usually takes.


All these simple tasks if you’re building a product around them, can be performed by you being cached by your customer. It’s a win-win: you get a better bonding plus you get a rare chance to wear your customer’s shoes and see what they see.


Challenge the pattern

Sometimes it helps to challenge yourself if you think you've found the pattern in what people are telling you. Try to do it in the opposite way, converting the statements all the way around and ask people how their experience correlate with this.

For example, you’ve found out a pattern that most freelancers don’t use AI-generating tools to write whole text, but they are fine with using them to build a SEO-focused structure or even LinkedIn posts. You might ask: — During the previous interviews some freelancers told that they are fine with using AI-generated tool to write articles for the blog but they prefer to craft the structure manually. What is you experience? How do you do it?

This might provide you with some unexpected plot twists and you might end up having an out-of-the-box idea.