The Kano Model

The Basic Idea

Designing new products can be really exciting. Whether you’re working on your own or as a team, you likely have all kinds of ideas to include in the design. Before long, you end up with a lengthy list of features that all sound super cool. But you’re not sure where to start. Can you even fit all these features into your product? Do your customers want these features at all?

Using the Kano model, you can find answers to these questions. The Kano model is a framework used to prioritize design features based on customers' emotional responses. Using a Kano questionnaire, the model analyzes customer responses and categorizes features according to their potential to satisfy customers. For example, features that end up in the “must-be” category are those that customers expect, while features in the “indifferent” category have little impact on customer satisfaction (more on this later). Unlike other feature prioritization methods, such as comparing benefits and costs, the Kano model focuses on how customers feel about each feature.

This is extremely useful in user experience (UX) design. After all, UX design aims to delight customers by meeting and exceeding their expectations. Products need to be people-focused to keep customers coming back for more, and using the Kano model can give these products the best chance at success. In particular, designers can build a competitive customer experience by providing features customers expect, adding a few unexpected but exciting features, and reducing the number of features that customers don’t like.

This all may sound obvious, but the benefit of the Kano model is learning what customers really want from UX design rather than making assumptions about their needs and goals.

Building a good customer experience does not happen by accident. It happens by design.


- Clare Muscutt, consultant and CEO of Women in CX

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TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.

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Key Terms and Concepts

The Kano model is rooted in principles of behavioral science. As mentioned, the model is an exceptional tool for measuring emotional responses. But how does it work? And how does the model help us extract meaning from these customer reactions?

The model uses standardized Kano questionnaires to determine how customers feel about different product features. These questionnaires consist of functional and dysfunctional questions. What does this mean? For each proposed feature, customers are asked for two ratings. First, they rate how they would feel if a product had the feature (the functional question). In the next question, they rate how they would feel if the product lacked the feature (the dysfunctional question).

To give you an idea of how this may look, consider the following Kano-style questions about a new shopping app.

Functional questions requesting a response based on the presence of a feature might include:

  • How would you feel if the app offered personalized product recommendations?
  • How would you feel if you could track your order in real time?
  • How would you feel if you could save products to a wish list?

The dysfunctional questions, requesting a response based on the absence of a feature, would be structured like this:

  • How would you feel if the app did not offer personalized product recommendations?
  • How would you feel if you couldn’t track your order in real time?
  • How would you feel if you couldn’t save products to a wish list?

For each functional and dysfunctional question, customers can select one of five emotional responses:

  • I like it
  • I expect it
  • I am neutral
  • I can live with it
  • I dislike it

Next, based on the responses, the features are graphically represented with functionality as the x-axis (ranging from absent to fully functional) and satisfaction as the y-axis (ranging from low to high). Each feature can fall into one of five categories based on where it lands on the graph. Let’s explore the five categories and the behavioral mechanisms behind each.

Must-be features: These are the basic features that customers expect the product to have by default. For example, a customer expects an e-commerce website to load quickly and perform well on mobile devices. When these features are present, the customer might not notice them at all. But when these features are missing, the customer will likely be unhappy. Generally, people tend to feel neutral when their expectations are met, but dissatisfied when reality falls short. As a result, must-be features are essential to include in your design if you want to keep up with your competitors.

Performance features: While customers don’t necessarily expect these features, like the must-be features above, performance features are desirable because they enhance the product's functionality. Let’s return to our example of a shopping app—a performance feature might include on-page product comparisons, next-day delivery, or advanced search filters.

Customers enjoy these performance features because they tend to save time, reduce frustration, and make the user experience more enjoyable overall. Including these in your design can help your product perform better than similar products on the market. However, leaving these features out of your design can cause dissatisfaction if they are often present in comparable products.

Attractive features: Product features sorted into the attractive category also make customers happy, but these features are more associated with excitement and delight than functionality. Customers don’t really expect these features from the product at all. As a result, including features from the attractive category can give your product that “wow” factor. You can think of these as delightful surprises, like an augmented reality tool that allows online shoppers to virtually try on clothing and accessories before making a purchase.

In contrast to features in the first two categories, which can cause disappointment if they are missing, lacking features from the attractive category does not make customers unhappy (because customers don’t expect them in the first place). This aligns with behavioral psychology—studies show that people respond more strongly to rewards they do not expect.1

Indifferent features: Unlike the three categories above, features that wind up in the indifferent category do not have a significant impact on customer satisfaction one way or another. Customers feel neutral about these features and don’t care whether or not they are included in the product. Typically, features that are categorized as indifferent don’t contribute to the user experience, like the logo on a website or the fonts used in order confirmation emails. Even if they sound exciting to the design team, prioritizing these features can waste time and resources because they don’t make a difference to the customer.

Reverse features: This final feature category swings in the opposite direction, meaning the presence of these features has a negative effect on customer satisfaction. At the same time, removing these features can increase customer satisfaction. Some common examples include intrusive ads and annoying pop-ups.

However, reverse features aren’t always so obviously undesirable. Sometimes, reverse features are only considered unlikable by certain customers, e.g. Requiring customers to create accounts may irritate or overwhelm users who are looking for a quick checkout process, negatively impacting their shopping experience—according to Baymard Institute, account creation requirements account for 25% of abandoned shopping carts! It goes without saying, but features that fall into the reverse category should be avoided. 

People generally respond more positively when their expectations are met or exceeded. On the other hand, they’re often disappointed by products that don’t perform as advertised or include features they dislike. Understanding how customers feel about specific features can help brands prioritize those features that maximize customer satisfaction.

History

Dr. Noriaki Kano developed the Kano model in the 1980s to better understand how customers judge the quality of a product. At the time, Kano was a professor of quality management at the Tokyo University of Science. He was looking for ways to improve customer satisfaction. Before the Kano model, most companies retained customers by heeding complaints and improving popular features.2

However, Kano theorized that it wasn’t the features themselves but the customers’ emotional responses to them that had the greatest impact on product success. This led Kano to explore theories of motivation, including Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Herzberg’s Motivation Theory, which provide valuable insights into consumer behavior. 

Kano conducted a study with 900 participants to test his theory, plotting their emotional responses to product features on a graph.3 His study highlighted the five feature categories we explained above. As a result, Kano discovered that customer satisfaction is about more than adding product features. Rather, designers should prioritize features that meet and exceed expectations while avoiding features that people don’t want (or don’t care about).

Consequences

Product design teams all over the world use the Kano model to make design decisions. With the Kano model, teams can avoid wasting time and resources on features that don’t improve customer satisfaction. At the same time, they can align their own priorities with what their customers really want. 

Rather than making assumptions about what people want, the Kano model relies on customer feedback through the use of surveys. Using standardized Kano questionnaires, brands can ask customers how they would feel about different features before investing in design and development.

You can find several Kano questionnaire templates online, like this template from Conjointly. There are also online tools that simplify the Kano model process, such as KanoSurveys, which allow you to describe the features you want to test, send a survey link to participants, and view an automatic analysis of the results. These tools categorize your features based on people’s responses, making it easy to see which features you should prioritize in your product design.

Although many design teams use the Kano model to discover what customers want before starting production, it can also be useful for highlighting issues in existing products. For example, perhaps your website auto-plays a loud video when it loads, and customers find this off-putting. You can use the Kano model to determine whether you’ve hit the mark with your design or need to make a few tweaks.

It’s important to note that the categorization of features in the Kano model can change over time. In terms of UX design, several features that were once considered exciting are now must-be features. For example, compared with the early days of the internet, websites and apps must now be mobile-friendly, touch-responsive, and smooth-loading. Customers also expect autocomplete suggestions in search bars and online forms. The evolution of these features reflects how customer expectations can change as more competing products enter the market.

Controversies

While the Kano model can be a great way to learn more about your customers, it does have a few problems. Some critics stress that customer satisfaction is more complicated than the model assumes. As a result, attempting to sort complex emotional responses into neat categories may be oversimplifying things.4  For example, most phone users might expect their battery to last all day, but they might feel differently depending on how much they use their phone.

At the same time, people sometimes contradict themselves when answering Kano questionnaires. Kano pointed this out himself, acknowledging awkward answer patterns that seem illogical. For example, someone might say they would like a TV with good picture quality, but in the next question, they would also like it if the picture quality was poor. Critics suggest that these inconsistencies are caused by confusing wording in the questionnaire.5

In line with this criticism, studies have found that Kano survey results are sensitive to changes in how questions and scale points are worded. Noting that the wordings in the model can be confusing, researchers in one study proposed new wordings for scale points.6 After testing the new wordings, they found that responses were much more consistent and logical.

Due to these issues with confusing questions and inconsistencies in the response scale, some market research and UX professionals suggest avoiding the Kano model altogether. However, the Kano model can be useful when you’re working with tight deadlines and need to speed up decision-making. It’s a quick and cheap way to learn what your customers want. Remember that the Kano model may work best in combination with other, more detailed market research methods.

Case Study

Customer satisfaction is crucial to success in any industry. While the Kano model has been applied in several industries to improve customer satisfaction, its use in healthcare is still relatively new.

In a literature review, researchers Tejaswi Materla, Elizabeth A. Cudney, and Jiju Antony suggested that the Kano model can provide key insights into what customers need from healthcare services.7 They found that the Kano model is useful for uncovering the quality of healthcare services that customers expect and can help pinpoint issues that need attention. With this information, companies operating in the healthcare industry can prioritize improvements that will have the greatest impact on customer satisfaction.

Materla and Cudney and Deborah Hopen followed this literature review with a case study using the Kano model to identify patient needs in the healthcare system.8 They surveyed 138 university students at Missouri University of Science and Technology who had used the school's Student Health Services (SHS). Students were asked about their treatment and service expectations on a Kano-based questionnaire. The researchers discovered two attractive features that could lead to greater satisfaction among users of the SHS: the availability of medical staff within 10 minutes of check-in and the provision of care outside of regular business hours.

This case study is a great example of how we can use the Kano model to understand customer needs and identify features that will directly increase customer satisfaction.

References

  1. Gregory, S., Berns., Samuel, M., McClure., Giuseppe, Pagnoni., P., Read, Montague. (2001). Predictability modulates human brain's response to reward. The Journal of Neuroscience, 21(8) 2793-2798. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.21-08-02793.2001
  2. Turner, M. (n.d.). An Interview with Professor Noriaki Kano | CQI | IRCA. Retrieved Dec 20, 2023 from https://www.quality.org/blog/interview-professor-noriaki-kano
  3. Kano, N. & Seraku, N. & Takahashi, F. & Tsuji, S.. (1984). Attractive Quality and Must-Be Quality. The Journal of the Japanese Society for Quality Control. 14(2): 39-44. 
  4. Mikulic, Josip & Sc, M. (2007). The Kano model - A review of its application in marketing research from 1984-2006. Retrieved Dec. 20, 2023 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228434290_The_Kano_model-A_review_of_its_application_in_marketing_research_from_1984-2006
  5. Grapentine, T. (2015). Why the Kano model wears no clothes: Article. Quirk’s Media. Retrieved Dec. 20, 2023 from https://www.quirks.com/articles/why-the-kano-model-wears-no-clothes
  6. Song, Haegeun, & Park, Young-Taek. (2012). Wordings of the Kano Model’s Questionnaire. Journal of Korean Society for Quality Management, 40(4), 453–466. https://doi.org/10.7469/JKSQM.2012.40.4.453
  7. Tejaswi Materla, Elizabeth A. Cudney & Jiju Antony (2017) The application of Kano model in the healthcare industry: a systematic literature review. Total Quality Management & Business Excellence, 30(5-6), 660-681, https://doi.org/10.1080/14783363.2017.1328980
  8. Materla, T., Cudney, E.A. and Hopen, D. (2019), Evaluating factors affecting patient satisfaction using the Kano model. International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance, 32(1), 137-151. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJHCQA-02-2018-0056

About the Author

Kira Warje

Kira Warje

Kira holds a degree in Psychology with an extended minor in Anthropology. Fascinated by all things human, she has written extensively on cognition and mental health, often leveraging insights about the human mind to craft actionable marketing content for brands. She loves talking about human quirks and motivations, driven by the belief that behavioural science can help us all lead healthier, happier, and more sustainable lives. Occasionally, Kira dabbles in web development and enjoys learning about the synergy between psychology and UX design.

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