Unraveling Consumer Expectations: The Key to Innovation

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Competing Against Luck" by Clayton Christensen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it important to understand consumer expectations? How can it drive product innovation and success?

In today’s competitive business landscape, understanding what motivates consumers is paramount to achieving success. According to Clayton Christensen’s book Competing Against Luck, by aligning products with consumer expectations, companies can accurately predict their success in the market.

Keep reading to learn how to truly understand consumer expectations, according to Christensen.

What Are Consumer Expectations?

According to business academic Clayton Christensen, successful leaders don’t use data to inspire innovative business decisions—instead, they use their subjective understanding of consumer expectations. Let’s take a closer look at Christensen’s idea of consumer expectations, which is the concept at the core of his framework for innovation in Competing Against Luck.

(Shortform note: Christensen uses the term “jobs” in Competing Against Luck to describe consumer expectations.)

What Are “Jobs”?

Christensen defines a “job” as a specific expectation that consumers have about a product and that they accomplish by buying a product, such as “entertain me and help me forget about work during my vacation.” He explains that understanding consumer expectations provides insight into customers because it identifies the root motivation behind a customer’s purchase, something that impersonal, often superficial data are ill-suited to accomplish.

Identifying consumer expectations comes with many benefits, notes Christensen. Once you’ve defined consumer expectations in detail, it’s much easier to come up with innovative ideas on how to better accomplish them. Additionally, you can predict whether an innovative product will succeed in the marketplace by judging how well it accomplishes them.

To clarify what counts as a “job” by Christensen’s definition, let’s take a look at three characteristics of a consumer job.

Characteristic #1: Jobs Are Situation-Dependent

Consumer expectations are tied to specific situations, and it’s vital to keep these situational factors in mind while brainstorming innovative ideas, according to Christensen. A customer may buy the same product to accomplish two different jobs in different circumstances. By designing each of your products for just one of these discrete circumstances, you ensure that you’re giving the customer exactly what they’re looking for at different points in time. This unique situational value is necessary to attract customers.

For example, if you make fishing rods, consider that customers buy them for two different jobs: 1) to compete in high-stakes fishing competitions, and 2) to give to their children. The best innovators might design a rod that specializes in just one of these two jobs—for instance, a fishing rod for children that’s safer and easier to use.

Christensen argues that this connection to specific situations is the primary characteristic that distinguishes consumer expectations from needs. Business and marketing experts frequently use the term “needs” to conceptualize consumer demand. Customers have many needs, but they’re often too vague and detached from a specific situation to accurately describe why customers make the purchases they do or guide innovation.

For instance, imagine someone invents a “heated sweater” that you plug into the wall to turn on. This invention ostensibly fulfills a customer need by helping people keep warm, but there’s no specific situation in which someone would pick it over a heated blanket or a thick coat. Ideas like this based on a vague need rather than a situation-dependent job often fail in the market.

Characteristic #2: Jobs Are Specific, but Not Too Specific

Consumer expectations exist at a specific level of abstraction that makes them ideal for sparking innovative product ideas, explains Christensen—they’re not too specific, but they’re not too vague. Consumer expectations that are too specific detail exactly what kind of product is necessary, preventing you from coming up with new ideas. On the other hand, consumer expectations that are too vague aren’t tied to a specific situation—which, as we discussed, is necessary to design a product that satisfies customers. True consumer jobs are just specific enough to inspire a wide range of solutions, helping you discover less obvious innovations that no organizations have tried before.

For instance, if you sell fishing rods, “successfully reel in large freshwater fish” would be too specific to qualify as a consumer expectation—the only possible product that could solve this job is a strong fishing rod, boxing in your creativity to this one idea. On the other hand, “help me relax” would be too vague to qualify as a job: It’s detached from a specific situation, so it can’t help you design a product with enough unique appeal to attract buyers. Someone designing a “relaxing fishing rod” might embed a relaxing scented potpourri in the handle—but there’s no situation that would inspire someone to buy that.

You’re looking for a job that’s just specific enough to inspire innovative ideas—in this case, you could say that fishing rods solve the job of helping people “fill time and appreciate the outdoors during leisure time.” Then, you could ask: How could I make a fishing rod that helps people appreciate the outdoors? Perhaps this gives you the idea for an innovation: a biodegradable fishing line.

Characteristic #3: Jobs Involve Both Physical and Emotional Factors

Finally, Christensen emphasizes the need to take emotional factors into account when defining consumer expectations. Customers buy products not only to improve physical conditions in their lives but also to spark positive emotions and resolve negative ones. In particular, consumers are concerned about how the products they use will make those around them feel—especially how others feel about them. If you focus your innovation solely on the practical solutions that your product offers, you may be ignoring an emotional cost of using your product that could dissuade customers from buying it.

For example, if a company invents a winter coat that retains significantly more heat than anything else on the market, but it’s so enormously puffy and colorful that people feel embarrassed wearing it, it probably won’t sell well. The company should have anticipated this emotional factor while designing it.

Unraveling Consumer Expectations: The Key to Innovation

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  • How to analyze consumer demand to guide product innovation
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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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