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How the Kano Model improves feature prioritization and boosts user satisfaction

What features should a product have? Seems a simple question, but it’s far from easy for product managers to say yay to one feature and nay to another. The Kano model helps them do so.

The Kano Model is a way to identify different kinds of product features and measure their presence (or absence) against customer satisfaction.

Let’s find out how the Kano Model can help you define and prioritize features in your next product.

What is the Kano Model?

The Model was invented 30+ years ago in Japan by Noriako Kano, whence the name. Kano’s Model was revolutionary in one main aspect – it gave the lie to the belief that the more features you add to a product or service, the happier a user or customer will be. Not true, said Kano.

In fact, Kano’s Model shows that some types of features will never create positive satisfaction in users, even if they’re good features. Some features, Kano’s ‘basic’ features, will only create a feeling of neutrality if present, but disgust if absent. Don’t believe us? Try this example.

You want to buy a new car. You go the the showroom and take a model for a test drive. The brakes work fine. Are you delighted by the brake feature? No, you expect them to work as a given. But if they didn’t work, you’d be outraged, right? The Kano Model teaches us that not all features are created equal.

“Some features, Kano’s ‘basic’ features, will only create a feeling of neutrality if present, but disgust if absent.”

Kano used a simple visual to map out the relationship between features and user satisfaction. On the X axis you’ve got feature implementation; on the Y axis user satisfaction. There are just 3 ideas you need to grasp to use the Kano model

  • Product functionality directly and measurably impacts user satisfaction
  • There are 3 types of ‘need’, which product managers will recognize as feature categories
  • User surveys can reveal satisfaction levels

Track feature implementation against how the user feels and you can prioritize features, plan product launches and have better market impact.

Image credit: The Complete Guide to the Kano Model

Defining product features with the Kano Model

There are three types of user need, or requirement, in the Kano Model: basic, performance, and attractive. Let’s take a closer look.

Basic user needs

Think, the functional brakes on that car you were going to buy a few paragraphs back. Basic needs – such as brakes – are product features that users don’t even know they want because they take them for granted.
Think about that. It means that, as a product team, no matter how much effort you put into getting a basic feature just right, customers will never rave about it. They will accept it as an integral, non-noteworthy part of the product.

On the flipside, if a product fails to meet a basic need (ie, faulty brakes), users will be extremely upset. Products that don’t meet basic needs don’t last in the marketplace, period.

Performance user needs

Performance needs, or ‘satisfiers’, refer to features that users notice, appreciate and want to see in a product. In the Kano Model, we can plot a beautifully clear connection between performance needs and user satisfaction. The more features there are to meet performance needs, the happier users are.

Thinking about the car buying example – the more miles that car does to the gallon, the happier a customer will be. Or say in Justinmind, the ability to prototype securely on an enterprise’s own servers is a performance feature: the more control over their security enterprise customers have, the more satisfied they are.

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Attractive user needs

These needs go by many names – delighters, wow factors, USPs. Whatever you call them, these are features that users don’t expect but love when they get them. An oft-used example is an upgrade on a longhaul flight – who doesn’t love that?! Or the ability to pay with your smartphone in a coffeeshop.

The best thing about ‘delighters’ is that they can be low cost to implement yet have a massive impact on user satisfaction. It doesnt cost an airline jack to fill an empty seat, but that customer will probably become a vocal advocate for the company.

When delight becomes dull: Kano model features over time

Maybe one of the most interesting aspects of the Kano model is the changes it maps over time. As the years pass, many features that once caused delight in users become merely satisfying, and then expected.

Take something as simple as internet connection on your phone – once it was the USP of devices made by the likes of Nokia, then it became a performance feature and now it’s becoming a basic.

That happens with all features, and product managers have to stay on top of those shifts.

Applying the Kano Model

As both product and UX teams are aware, conducting effective research into user satisfaction is a skill all of its own. The Kano Model comes with its own questionnaire to facilitate the process of discovering user satisfaction levels.

Like the Model itself, the questionnaire is disarmingly simple. For every feature the product manager must ask the user two questions:

  • How would you feel if the product had that feature?
  • How would you feel if the product didn’t have that feature?

Users can choose pre-selected responses, ranging from ‘I like it’ to ‘I don’t like it’.

Using the responses, product managers can categorize each feature in an evaluation table, like the one below. 

Image credit: Nitesh Verma

Even though the Kano questionnaire is simple it can reveal useful data. Just be sure to apply standard user interview best practices to get usable data.

Kano Model: the benefits for product managers

There are several good reasons to try out the Kano Model on your next software engineering project.

  • Keep the product backlog nice and tidy. Sometimes, backlogs can turn into a bit of a feature stew, with technical debt, marketing team demands and prospective features all floating around together. Use the Kano model to weed out the user-centric features and prioritize them by order of importance. That doesn’t mean you jettison technical debt, but rather have a better understanding of its place in the products development. Justinmind’s very own PM Victor Conesa shares his thoughts on backlog management on Mind the Product
  • Positively influence the product roadmap. For example, you wouldn’t want to bring out even an experimental MVP until you know the product covers all the Basic features.
  • Identify product opportunities and gaps in the market. The Model will help you discover which of your competitors’ features you absolutely have to implement and which you can leave aside. Plus it can reveal features that will delight at little extra financial investment.

The Kano Model for product managers – the takeaway

Feature definition and prioritization is necessarily a complex activity. The Kano Model is one way of shedding light on the dark corners of the product backlog and identifying essential features. Try out the Model if you want to identify new ways to connect with users and differentiate your product’s features from the competition. The Model isn’t a panacea for all your product woes, but it’s an easy-to-leverage methodology for understanding your market, user and product just that little bit better.


Cassandra is Marketing Lead at Justinmind

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