The Kano Model, developed and published by Dr. Noriaki Kano, is an analytical approach to identifying unspoken customer needs and preferences before setting development priorities on the product roadmap.

Instead of building new features or entirely new products based solely on internal ideation sessions (which can become echo chambers), the Kano Model offers a qualitative framework for vetting product development plans based on customer feedback, satisfaction, previously unexpressed desires, and customers’ purchasing appetite.

Many organizations still overemphasize quantitative data, which leaves an information gap in the product management function. The Kano Model’s rigorous qualitative process neatly fills this gap by providing a mechanism for product teams to answer these critical questions:

  • How can customer satisfaction be reliably measured?
  • Will customer loyalty increase by upgrading existing features vs. building new ones?
  • How can we know which new features will wow and delight our customers?

What is the main objective of the Kano Model

The Kano Model emerged while Dr. Kano was a professor of quality management at the Tokyo University of Science, during the rise of Japan’s Total Quality Management method (TQM) - a comprehensive management approach aimed at enhancing quality and productivity.

The core of his theory is that customer loyalty is largely driven by a customer’s emotional response to product features. If those emotional responses can be measured and analyzed, product teams gain access to more nuanced user persona attributes and buying motivations, which can then be used to inform product upgrades and new product development.

Kano's analysis uses a standardized questionnaire that guides customers to provide feedback on their level of satisfaction with current features and to articulate additional needs. This data provides multiple layers of insight for product teams who need to weigh the desirability of a new feature against the investment required to deliver it.

What are the elements of the Kano Model?

Dr. Kano articulated three levels of customer needs – expected, normal and exciting. Understanding these needs, and how to optimize for them, is vital for any product team tasked with increasing customer satisfaction.

1. Expected levels of need

Expected needs are the non-negotiables that the product must have. Consumers take these features for granted; they assume they’ll be there in every case.

A Kano Model example of expected needs: tires and brakes on a car.

2. Normal levels of need

Normal needs go one step further. Continuing our car example, these might be items that most car dealerships treat as an add-on, such as leather seats or a sunroof.

Over time, features that provide a normal level of need often become so ingrained in the product that they regress to the level of an expected need.

3. Exciting levels of need

Exciting needs bring the “wow” factor. These features are a delightful surprise that widens the customer’s perception of what’s possible. These attributes sometimes define a new category (many Apple product launches have done this) or set the company so far ahead that the competition has no choice but to incorporate this new feature in order to stay relevant.

Categories of the Kano Method

The Kano Model template also assigns features a value based on each of the five emotional response types - Must-Have, Performance, Attractive, Indifferent, and Reverse.

Must-Have - As the name suggests, Must-Have features are quite literally a must-have. These are the features that meet the customer’s most basic functional expectations. Even if a product ranks high in all other categories, if this Must-Have ranking is low, a product will likely struggle to achieve consistently high customer satisfaction and subsequently, user retention.

Performance - Once the Must-Have features are accounted for, the next priority is Performance features. The functional advantage of these features is often obvious to the average user, and almost always correlates to an uptick in customer satisfaction. Returning to our earlier car example, a car’s gas mileage would be a Performance feature - the more the customer has of this attribute, the more pleased they are.

Attractive - These are unexpected features that cause a positive reaction. Also called Exciters or Delighters, Attractive features often transition into Performance features over time, as their novelty wears off. For example, there was a time when keyless entry was only available on certain cars, making it an Attractive feature. However, as it has become more ubiquitous, this feature would now be more commonly categorized as a Performance feature, or even a Must-Have for some consumer segments.

Indifferent - These features don’t make a substantial difference in a customer’s reaction to the product. The customer feels neutral about them. During Kano analysis, many product teams have been taken aback to discover that features they invested in heavily were not as cherished by the product’s user base as expected. Despite the initial sting of this feedback, these are necessary and actionable insights that every product team should be seeking.

Reverse - These features increase customer satisfaction by being absent. Features that have been assigned a high Reverse value clearly tell the product management team: “Do not build this!”

How is the Kano Model implemented?

The best time to implement the Kano Model’s categories of product development is when your product team is experiencing one or more of the following scenarios:

  • Internal teams aren’t aligned on which priority features to develop next
  • The product team is working on a product type for the first time
  • Tight deadlines with limited margin for error
  • Limited budgets that don’t have enough padding for the full development of a feature that hasn’t been pre-vetted for high customer demand

The process begins with compiling a list of all potential new features. Next, all feature ideas are assessed using two factors:

  1. The likelihood that this feature will produce high customer satisfaction.
  2. The total resource investment required to implement the feature.

This approach is most effective for teams in need of guidance to figure out which minimum-threshold features they absolutely must build, which performance features to start investing in now, and which customer-delight features will deliver the biggest customer “Wow!” for the buck.

In short, the Kano Model helps teams get clear on which baseline features are necessary, which performance features they can start roadmapping for future deployment, and which “Wow!” features will generate the highest degree of customer retention and new customer acquisition.

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