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The Kano Model

The Kano Model is named after Noriaki Kano (born 1940), an educator and writer who taught for several decades at the Tokyo University of Science (Figure 4.5). He spent much of his career in the 1970s and 1980s developing and fine-tuning an approach to analyzing customer satisfaction. The essence of his approach is that all product attributes are not equal to customers, and therefore improving each product attribute doesn’t necessarily result in higher customer satisfaction.1

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 Noriaki Kano, a researcher and educator in the field of quality management, developed a model of customer satisfaction that uses concepts similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. But his model articulates them even more specifically to the work of managing products and customer satisfaction.

Well, that can’t be right! Why wouldn’t improving something result in more satisfaction? Better is better, right?

Not exactly. And Kano’s model of analyzing product attributes explains why. It’s similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, but instead of five levels, it has three broader categories of product attributes: basic, performance, and delightful.

Basic attributes

Basic attributes are exactly what they sound like: basic, assumed, fundamental. They’re absolutely essential to the product. If a basic attribute is missing, the product doesn’t work. Basic attributes are usually pretty easy to confirm in physical products. For example, if a flashlight didn’t have a switch, it would be impossible to turn it on or off. Therefore, a switch is a basic product attribute of a flashlight.

Performance attributes

Performance attributes are less binary than basic ones, and therefore can be delivered across a range of performance or effectiveness. A switch on a flashlight is either there or it’s not—you can’t kind of have a switch. Furthermore, even when it’s there, a flashlight switch doesn’t have much room for improvement. It’s going to turn something on or off regardless, as long as it’s functional.

But a performance attribute of a flashlight is the brightness of the lightbulb. A strong bulb could result in higher customer satisfaction, whereas a dim bulb could result in lower customer satisfaction. There’s a range of brightness associated with lightbulbs.

Delightful attributes

These attributes, sometimes called excitement attributes, are not as broadly anticipated or assumed by customers. And they’re definitely not a core expectation. With a flashlight, a delightful attribute could be the color or material of the handle, or even something as subtle as the texture of the grip that you hold on to. Such details aren’t absolutely essential, as the flashlight is designed to shed light on things. But the right color flashlight, or one that’s easier to hold on to, could be more delightful to use.

So these are the three product attribute categories of the Kano Model. But we’re just getting started. It gets more interesting!

Different attributes, different results

The Kano Model category names themselves provide some clues to understanding them. Let’s look at a few corollaries to the Kano Model.

Missing basic attributes are a product’s biggest problem, but delivering them results in low satisfaction

This doesn’t seem very fair, but it’s true. Consider a car, the industry that Kano originally based much of his theory on. There are hundreds of different cars that are designed and manufactured by different automotive companies, but they all share some product attributes, one of them being a steering wheel (Figure 4.6). All cars have them. So do trucks and minivans. It doesn’t matter what the body type or passenger capacity is, all cars have steering wheels. They’re a basic product attribute of a car.

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6 A steering wheel is expected and necessary for a car to work, so it’s a basic Kano product attribute.

Without a steering wheel, the car is incomplete.

What’s interesting, though, is that providing a steering wheel in your car doesn’t garner you much praise, if any at all. Customers just aren’t going to pat you on the back and say, “Awesome feature! I love the steering wheel!” No. While a steering wheel is necessary, providing it doesn’t result in high product satisfaction. It only results in adequate satisfaction.

But leaving the steering wheel out of the product does quite the opposite. It results in very low product satisfaction. A missing basic expectation means that you haven’t just underperformed, you’ve failed. Selling a car without a steering wheel is indeed failure. The car won’t work and isn’t safe without a steering wheel. It’s an incomplete product.

Performance attributes are often customer specific

The most important thing to recognize about performance attributes is that they’re not nearly as universal as basic attributes. A missing steering wheel is a missing steering wheel—there’s just not much to debate there, no matter who the customer is. So the universality of a product attribute can be a clue as to whether it is basic and expected.

Going back to the automobile example, consider a common measure of performance for cars: speed. If speed is your measure of performance, it might lead you to buy a sports car, one that goes from 0 to 60 mph in just a few seconds and has the agility you need to zip around those other cars with much more sluggish performance (sounds kind of fun, doesn’t it?).

But this definition of performance isn’t necessarily for everyone, at least when it comes to purchasing a new car. You might like a fast car, but depending on who you are and what you can afford, you might not actually buy one.

So consider alternative interpretations of performance, such as fuel efficiency (Figure 4.7). It’s somewhat the opposite of a sports car, which favors speed over fuel efficiency. But for many people who are more conscious of expenses and environmental impacts, owning a car with the best fuel efficiency is the measure of great performance. For them, getting more miles per gallon of gas is another way of defining high performance.

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7 Fuel economy is something with a linear range of performance, from low to high, making it a performance Kano product attribute.

Additionally, how about seats or cargo space? If you’re the parent of multiple children, you’re probably not looking to buy a sports car. And you may be less interested in fuel economy than a single person who has the luxury of maximizing fuel efficiency by driving a really tiny car. To you, performance may have another definition: How many of your children and their friends can fit in the vehicle? And how much of their gear can it haul? Or how many bags of groceries can it carry?

Delivering performance or delightful attributes doesn’t compensate for missing basic attributes

Think again about a car without a steering wheel, an example of an incomplete product. If you’re the product manager for this car, you could have your engineering team vastly improve the fuel efficiency. Or fine-tune the design of the interior to increase the amount of room for passengers or cargo. You could even sell a version with a convertible roof (Figure 4.8). That would be especially delightful, right?

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8 A convertible roof on a car isn’t essential, nor does it enhance the car’s performance. It’s an option that can make driving the car really fun in sunny weather, so it’s a delightful Kano product attribute.

But with this example, it’s easy to see that improving the car’s performance or adding delightful attributes won’t make up for missing a basic feature. A car with great fuel economy and a convertible roof won’t do you much good if it has no steering wheel. A nonfunctional car is a nonfunctional car, regardless of the additional features it might have.

When prioritizing enhancements on a digital product, make sure that you never diminish the importance of a missing or flawed basic feature. And never make the mistake of thinking that enhancing another area of the site or app will make it easier for customers to accept the missing or flawed feature. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that argument all too often: “Well, we can’t really address that problem right now... but doing this other enhancement should help in the meantime, and give them something else to be happy about.”

That’s not how it works.

If a basic feature is missing or broken, it’s missing or broken. Don’t think you can distract customers with a bunch of other improvements. You’ll just squander their goodwill and reduce product satisfaction. If you roll out an enhancement that doesn’t resolve another, more pressing issue, customers won’t be any happier. And any positive reaction to the new enhancement won’t be nearly as strong later, either.

Performance and delightful enhancements are effective only when the context is an otherwise complete product. Poorly timed releases of performance and delightful features are at risk not only for not increasing product satisfaction, but also for deepening customers’ doubt in your product and its ongoing management and development.

Today’s performance or delightful feature can quickly become tomorrow’s basic feature

One of the biggest challenges with digital products is customers’ rapidly changing expectations. Consider how quickly expectations evolved after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. Certainly, mobile phone owners’ expectations didn’t shift immediately; after all, even today many people haven’t upgraded to a smartphone of one kind or another. But when people do, the flexibility and usefulness of the device can really get them hooked.

Just this week, I saw some interesting changed expectations in action as they relate to smartphones. As I’m writing this, it is the last week of May 2013. Yahoo just announced a new, updated design of its Flickr photo service. It’s really nice, so it got a lot of positive reviews and press.

But in the midst of the positive attention was a significant amount of backlash and criticism, too. Why? The Flickr redesign didn’t include an updated mobile-optimized version of the site. And given how influential apps like Instagram have been, and even Twitter with its inline photo display, an updated Flickr design that impacts only desktop users seems rather quaint and less significant than it would have been in the past. And for people who browse the web primarily on their smartphones, the updated Flickr is not just a nonissue, it’s also a bit insulting.

Clearly, expectations for digital photo sites have changed rapidly due to widespread smartphone adoption and competition from sites like Instagram. So don’t rest on your laurels: Don’t assume that because you have a popular digital product today, you’ll have continued smooth sailing tomorrow. Expectations for your website or mobile app will change. It’s just a matter of when.

Will you be paying attention, doing industry research, and staying in touch with your customers to know when it happens?

Visualizing Kano attributes

Let’s take a look at a standard Kano product attribute graph, which makes it a bit easier to see how different product attributes relate to one another (Figure 4.9).

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9 As shown in the Kano Model, customer satisfaction and dissatisfaction vary greatly depending on the quality of basic, performance, or delightful features. Understanding these differences and relationships is key to successfully influencing customer satisfaction with product management decisions.

As you can see, the red line depicting basic features does just what was described earlier. When a basic feature is delivered, the line plateaus slightly above zero on the y-axis of customer satisfaction to indicate that this generates feelings of adequacy, not hearty pats on the back.

But also note how steeply the red curve dives to deep dissatisfaction when delivery of basic attributes doesn’t happen and execution is poor. Poor execution of an expected feature results in very harsh feelings: anger, frustration, sadness. People can feel very strongly about a broken product. Don’t let that happen with your digital product.

The green line, representing performance attributes, is linear. That’s because poor delivery results in less satisfaction, and good delivery results in higher satisfaction. It’s easiest and most predictable to improve performance of a site or app however you can, whether it’s speed, ease of use, or some other measure. Any attribute that offers a range of options or examples can fall into this category.

Finally, the blue line charts the range of customer reactions to delightful attributes. Because they are unexpected, a missing or poorly executed delightful feature does not usually result in poor customer satisfaction. Customers either aren’t expecting it or won’t feel terrible if it’s there but not perfect. It’s an extra, so not a big deal.

But a very well-executed, delightful feature can take your product into the highest stratosphere of customer satisfaction. So the blue graph goes the highest on the y-axis and is essentially the reverse trend of a basic attribute graph.

Charting your product attributes, whether existing or planned, can help you see whether you’re focusing on the right user stories at the right time. If you have an expected attribute that’s faring poorly in customer satisfaction, don’t let yourself get distracted by performance or delightful attributes. Use this graph with team members, executives, or clients to help make this message clearer.

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