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Research & Design Strategy

No pain, no gain?

October 25, 2017

As a design researcher and strategist, I am always looking for ways to help users have more meaningful experiences with products and services.

One of best tools we have for understanding user experiences is the journey or experience map. With this tool, after conducting solid field research, we map the user experience and, usually, the user’s pain points. Often these pain points (either at specific points in the journey and/or at a meta level) become the starting point for ideation.

While addressing customer pain points is a great way to inspire design, we limit ourselves if we stop there. Focusing on only pain points might blind us from a bigger opportunity. It can hide the bigger picture of the user’s needs and may also prevent us from seeing where there are opportunities to “amp up the good” by addressing the gains that users desire.

Clayton Christensen’s “Jobs to Be Done” (JTBD) theory of innovation (see the classic Harvard Business Review article on this here, or Google it and you’ll find numerous other articles) and the Value Proposition Canvas (from Strategyzer) are two great ways to get us out of the pain point-only habit.

JTBD asks us to think about the bigger picture of why a customer or user “hires” a product or service and to think more deeply about the functional, emotional and/or social job that product or service may have. We can take that idea of jobs a step further and think about not just the pains (problems, setbacks, workarounds) that happen in trying to accomplish that job, but also the gains (outcomes, benefits) that are sought.

Pain points are typically easy to identify with good ears and eyes (and being sure to anchor not just on articulated problems, but the unarticulated ones as well). Thinking bigger picture, functional jobs are usually easier to identify than emotional and social jobs (such as “feeling connected to others” or “looking smart in front of my colleagues”). Mapping the broader user ecosystem (thinking about whom and what else is present) helps us identify social and emotional jobs as well. I’ve also found that what we might call an “irrational” user behavior is sometimes a function of a social or emotional job or a more nuanced pain point.

While addressing customer pain points is a great way to inspire design, we limit ourselves if we stop there.

I’ll be honest, though, identifying gains in a user journey is challenging for me. I find it much easier to identify jobs or to identify what’s going wrong than to see what is going well and could be better. Typically, gains aren’t as easy for a user to articulate. Projective techniques like asking the user to articulate a best-case scenario help, but it often comes down to thoughtful analysis to get a good inventory of gains.

The practice of identifying gains doesn’t have to be perfect – this is a tool, not the solution. Some gains might actually be pains in reverse and some of your jobs may not be that well defined, but just the process of thinking about user needs more holistically will net richer opportunity areas. You could even go extreme in your next design project by limiting a brainstorm or two to prompts that only address jobs and gains – no pain point solutions allowed!

If your design aspiration is relatively modest or your objective is to create only incremental change, pain points might be enough for your next product or service release. But if the goal is to be “innovative” or “disruptive” (those words are so loaded, I know) then look beyond pain points. Your customers will thank you for it.

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