Combining Mental Model Diagrams and Jobs To Be Done

A key challenge in product development is selecting areas of improvements and innovation to focus on. A solid theory is needed to connect user insights to development decisions.

To that end, the user experience design team for GoToMeeting embarked on efforts to provide actionable needs-based insight for product development. In addition to myself, that team included Amber Brown, Jen Padilla, Elizabeth Thapliyal and Ryan Kasper.

The approach began by creating a mental model diagram and then combined elements of Tony Ulwick’s Outcome-Driven Innovation and jobs to be done theory to prioritize user needs and innovate solutions. The overall process had six steps:

1. Conduct primary research

We started with contextual inquiry. Broadly looking at the domain of work collaboration and communication, we conducted over 40 on-site interviews. Stakeholders and team members were included in the interviewing process.

Data collection included field notes, photos, audio recordings, and video. A third party vendor transcribed all of the over 68 hours of audio recordings. This resulted in nearly 1500 pages of text.

2. Create a Mental Model Diagram

Following Indi Young’s approach closely, we analyzed the transcriptions for the jobs people were trying to get done.  Through an iterative process of grouping, we created the mental model diagram. This is a bottom-up approach that entails clustering individual findings into themes, which are in turn grouped into categories.

Fundamental goals and needs began to emerge. The result was illustration of “work collaboration” based directly on field research.

The process also included the mapping of current products and features that support customer goals and needs. This allowed the team to see how our current offerings fit into a customer’s mental model.


3. Hold a workshop

In a workshop with approximately 12 stakeholders from various departments, we read through the diagram in breakout groups. Each group got about a third of the overall mental model to work with. The goal was to have stakeholders first empathize with the current user experience.

2-9 workshop.png

 Using a mental model diagram in a workshop with stakeholders (picture: Jim Kalbach and Amber Brown)

We then brainstormed concepts using scenarios around the “future of work.” To do this, we presented each group with key trends about the future of work taken from industry reports. At each section of the diagram, we posed the question to the group, “If each trend came true, what must we do to support customers and ultimately to evolve as a company?”

To help socialize the outcomes of the workshop, we created an infographic summarizing the main conclusions. We printed this graphic on a single sheet of paper, had it laminated, and sent it by regular mail to workshop participants. A year or more later, it was still possible to see this infographic on teammates’ desks.

4. Map concepts to diagram

After the workshop, we updated the diagram with comments and input from stakeholders. We then mapped various concepts back to the diagram below the support towers. This resulted in an extended map and composite picture: the user’s experience on the top, the current support we currently offer in the middle, and future enhancements and innovations at the bottom.

But which gaps in people’s ability to collaborate should we aim to solve first? Jobs to be done (described above) then helped us focus on the concepts with the most potential.

5. Prioritize Jobs To Be Done

We prioritized the jobs represented in the diagram by two factors:

  • The level of importance associated with getting the job done
  • The level of satisfaction associated with getting the job done

Graphed on a chart, the jobs that are highly important but least satisfied have the highest chance of customer adoption (Figure 2-11). They fulfill an unmet need.

importance satisfaction.png

Solutions that meet unmet needs – or jobs that are important but unsatisfied – have a higher chance of succeeding.

To find this sweet spot, we employed a specific technique developed by Tony Ulwick. For more on this method, see the writings of Tony Ulwick listed below.

The technique starts with generating so-called desired outcome statements, or the success measures for completing a job successfully. These were based directly on the mental model diagram.

Next, we launched a quantitative survey with the complete set of about 30 desired outcome statements. Respondents were asked to rate each desired outcome statement for both importance and for satisfaction.

We then calculated the opportunity score for each statement. This is determined by taking the score for importance and adding the satisfaction gap, or is importance minus satisfaction. For instance, if for a given statement respondents rated importance 9 and satisfaction 3, the result is 15 for the opportunity score (15=9+(9-3)).


Opportunity scores for finding unmet jobs to be done.

Note that this score intentionally focuses on customer opportunity, not financial opportunity or market size opportunity. In other words, we were looking to solve for customer needs that would bring the chance of adoption by customers.

6. Focus innovation efforts

The tasks in the mental model diagram, the opportunity scores, and proposed concepts were visually aligned, providing a clear picture of the opportunity space.

map final.png

A portion of the extended mental mode diagram showing the highest areas of opportunity. The point is to understand the alignment of four layers of information:

  1. The individual’s experience represented as a mental model diagram,
  2. Service that current support their experience,
  3. Future concepts developed by the team, and
  4. The areas of unmet needs reflecting the highest opportunity, determined by the jobs to be done research

Efforts were prioritized against this information. This gave the team confidence that we were moving in the right direction—one that was firmly grounded in primary insights.


Product managers, marketing managers, and engineers found the information useful to their work. The prioritized list of people’s needs turned out to be a highly consumable format for teams to engage with the research.

One product owner said:

“It’s great to have this data to help make informed decisions. I’m looking forward to incorporating it more and more.”

Through these efforts multiple concepts have been prototyped and two innovations are being launched in the Apple Store, and one was awarded a patent. Overall, the approach gave a rich, user-centered theory for product development. The combination of the mental model and jobs to be done methods have served as a centerpiece in the process, fostering many conversations and gathering consensus.


I’d like to thank my colleagues for collaborating with me on this work:

  • Jen Padilla is a manager of UX research at VMware.
  • Elizabeth Thapliyal is a Lead UX designer with an MBA in Strategic Design from the California College of the Arts
  • Ryan Kasper is a UX Researcher, currently at Facebook, and holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from UCSB.
  • Amber Brown is Product Manager at Medline Industries, Inc.

Further Reading

  • Anthony Ulwick. What Customers Want (McGraw Hill, 2005)
  • Anthony Ulwick. “Turn Customer Input into Innovation,” Harvard Business Review (2003)

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

One comment

  1. Betsy Bland

    Hi Jim –

    Thanks so much for posting this. I’ve thought mental models and JTBD seemed to have a very close relationship, and love to see how you’ve been able to leverage both approaches. We’ve been working on building out a mental model diagram, and plan to use the desired outcome statement survey approach once we’ve finished. I was wondering how you identified your desired outcomes from the mental model — were they specific tasks in the diagram or did you use something else? While I think the transition theoretically makes sense, not quite sure how to bridge the two.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: