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How Marathon Training Made Me a Better Product Designer

Your mileage may vary 😜

Running a marathon is a bucket-list item for many. In 2016, there were over 500,000 marathon finishers in the US. Some run for fitness, some run to compete at a professional level, some run to travel and have fun.

All of us shared the same Job to be Done: “Run a marathon”. This makes us a market: the Job Performer (the runner) and the Job to be Done (run a marathon)

But if you’ve ever trained for or watched a marathon, you know there’s a LOT of variation between runners, their goals and the general circumstances around their trying to get the Job Done.

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Team Hoyt

Circumstances change the game, and a great designer knows how important it is to keep these constraints in mind when designing a solution. You’re not going to be able to design a single solution that is the best fit for everyone in the market, so you have to figure out what’s important to your target market and figure out how best to help them get there.

Consider Training Plans

Higdon? Hanson. Pfitzinger or Lydiard? What about FIRST?

When an aspiring marathoner starts training, it’s common for her to research training plans. There are different training philosophies, and a great plan for one person may be disastrous for another.

We’d never think that a single marathon training plan would be appropriate for everyone in the market. I know I’d never be able to survive Eliud Kipchoge’s training plan! (Kipchoge ran the fastest ever marathon, 2:00:25 as part of the Nike Breaking2 Event in May 2017). To put that in perspective, the median finishing time in 2015 was 4:20 for men and 4:45 for women. We need to segment the market.

A marathoner is going to consider her own circumstances when picking a plan. What is her goal? How much time is she willing or able to commit to training? How does the course profile factor in? These circumstances will change which plan may most appropriate for her.

When a group of marathoners shares some relevant similarities, we can group them into an outcome-based segment. This is powerful in that we can design expressly to help them achieve their stated outcomes. It becomes less about a “first-time marathoner” or “marathoner over age 40” and more about what they’re seeking to achieve.

These segments are also helpful because it gets us away from focusing on individuals. Remember, it does no good to design for markets of one. When you have outcome-based segments, you can focus on introducing better ways to achieve those outcomes, regardless of the specific individuals who have that desired outcome. This helps offset flukes or outliers.

This is also important to understand when a customer churns, or stops using your product. It may not be that your solution wasn’t good enough, but rather that her desired outcomes and resulting ‘hiring criteria’ have changed.

Same Job Performer, Same JTBD, Different Goals

Not only is each runner different, a single runner’s desired outcomes can change too.

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Houston Marathon, 2012

Since 2004, I’ve completed over 40 marathons. My fastest is 3:09:52 and my slowest is 7:56:45. Some of those were fast flat or downhill courses where my goal was to minimize the time it took to reach the finish. I prepared for and ran for those races a certain way.

Other times, it was simply to minimize the risk I’d be unable to complete the course within the allotted time period. In races like the Pikes Peak Marathon and the Marathon du Medoc, the focus was simply on relishing the experience without risking injury or being too slow.

Marathon du Medoc, 2016. Yes, I’m drinking wine DURING the event!

There isn’t necessarily a logical progression of goals building on one another. Although many marathoners will try to complete the distance at a faster pace, that’s not always going to be the case. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you know what progress the user is trying to make.

Of course, sometimes it’s hard to admit when you have a stretch goal. I tried to qualify for the New York City Marathon for years before I was able to do it. It was hard to admit that I was trying, when I knew failure was a possibility. But how can anyone possibly identify the best way to get you to a place you refuse to disclose?

One challenge is understanding what people are actually trying to achieve when they DO articulate their goals. The folks at Strategyn use a standard structure to document Desired Outcomes (or Customer Needs). It seems a bit awkward at first, but it’s easy to see the power in it once you work with them a bit. Instead of a wishy-washy goal like “I want to do well”, a desired outcome statement like the one below helps designers understand how the job performer will evaluate success.

Notice that this statement doesn’t actually say “Run fast”. There are other pieces to the equation: namely, good weather and a course conducive to a fast run. The site FindMyMarathon.com has developed an algorithm that calculates scores for the fastest courses. A runner with this desired outcome may choose to ‘hire’ one of the courses listed here to help her achieve her goal!

Worked for me! — I was one of the 23% of finishers who qualified for Boston at Jack and Jill (#5)

A Job to be Done is best understood as a process. Hence the “to be Done” part! I run a marathon under certain circumstances. In preparing to do so, I follow some universal steps. In the “Define” step, I set a goal. In “Locate” I pick a training plan.

Job Map(TM) by Strategyn

The last step is “Conclude”. I cross the finish line (or drop out of the race). Once the Job is Done, I fall out of the market.

But wouldn’t you know it? Before too long my legs aren’t feeling too bad, and I decide I want to put myself through this again.

The process starts over again. What’re my goals? What are the circumstances around the Job this time? What’s the best way for me to achieve the goals?

Sometimes talking about market segmentation and goals and progress can be a little academic. It helped me to think about my own experiences in getting a Job Done, and changing what success meant. Of course, one person does not a market make. I didn’t write this to prescribe a specific training plan or course (although I DO recommend Jack and Jill if you want to run fast…). The point was simply to help you understand that markets aren’t homogenous, and even the same person executing the same Job to be Done can change their success criteria.

If you’re a designer, design for a market segment, not a person. You’re going to be much more successful designing for “the outcome-based segment of runners who want to minimize the time it takes to reach the finish” than for “Andrea Hill — market of one”.

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Andrea Hill is the principal consultant at Frameplay. Frameplay is an innovation consultancy that helps companies become more customer-focused and thrive in a rapidly changing world. Learn more at frameplay.co

Written by

Sr UX Specialist with Canada Revenue Agency, former web dev and product person. 🔎 Lifelong learner. Unapologetic introvert. Plant-powered marathoner. Cat mom.

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