Kano like a boss

Product management and user experience pros may be familiar with the Kano model, a simple and powerful depiction of the non-linear relationship between the level of functional execution and the level of customer satisfaction of a product and its features. I won’t spend too much time on the basics of the model; others have done so well. User Experience guru Jared Spool recently posted another thoughtful primer on the Kano model for User Experience (UX) professionals. I want to talk about boss-level Kanoing, specifically for product management pros.

If you’re unfamiliar with the model, it essentially recognizes three different patterns: a non-linear expected curve, a linear performance line, and a non-linear surprising curve. The graph looks like this (the labels and captions are my own).

I was introduced to the model over ten years ago (has it really been that long?!) by Dr. Stan Tead, a friend, colleague, and product manager with deep expertise in mathematical models for grouping and analyzing features and value. (Tip: if you want a serious prioritizer on your product team, get yourself a product manager with an ivy league PhD in physics, like Stan.) While Dr. Noriaki Kano originally applied this model to manufacturing and industry quality management practices in the 1980s, it is easily applied to modern digital product management practices.

Kano for value-based prioritization

A variable in nearly any prioritization methodology is value. What will this feature mean to users? And how can we compare the value of unrelated features? Product managers spend their days obsessing over these questions. Kano is a great way to establish value. Just add a scale to the vertical axis, like this.

Then, as you evaluate feature candidates, you can compare the current state of a product with where it might be using basic math. You can calculate the difference to determine the relative value of features, even those on different curves on the model. A simple chart might look like this.

Compare the value of different features using the Kano model

Of course, you should be sure to include other variables in your prioritization scheme, like effort, reach, and confidence.

Kano and user research

As with any product prioritization model, when using the Kano model you should conduct user research to discern value, rather than relying on your own analysis. Dr. Kano designed two simple framing questions to determine where a feature or potential feature sits on the Kano model.

  • How do you feel if you have the feature? (The functional question.)
  • How do you feel if you don’t have the feature? (The dysfunctional question.)

If users like having a feature, and aren’t surprised by its absence. then it’s on the surprising curve. If users dislike its absence, and aren’t thrilled about having it, then it’s in the expected curve. And if the likes and dislikes are proportional, then it’s on the performance line. (Note: a couple other results are possible: an indifferent result, where a feature has no affect on satisfaction. And, rarely, a reverse result, where the user’s satisfaction increases with the absence of a feature.)

Roadmapping with Kano

A product roadmap often takes a familiar form: the swim lane-style map, with categories or themes running horizontally, and time horizons running vertically.

A Kano roadmap is a different, and often better, way to depict a product plan over time. I like it because it shows a change in customer satisfaction, not just the addition of features.

To build such a map, simply start with a theme of your product. Plot the current state on the Kano chart. Then note where you plan to take that theme over time: in the next development cycle, and in your product’s future vision. You might even depict a feature group or theme jumping from one scale to another, as when a feature that is surprising now becomes expected in the future. Add a few quick keynote or powerpoint animations, and you have a dynamic roadmap showing how you expect the product feature set to affect customer satisfaction.

The Tyranny of Expectations

This is a phrase I learned from a boss, mentor, friend, and fellow basketball fan, Keith Koch, currently an SVP of digital product at Optum Insight. As product professionals well know, functionality that once delighted and surprised a customer base soon becomes expected. You can plot this on Kano, seeing features “decay” from suprising, to performance, to expected. That which once delighted us (“Whoa: Grandpa’s Cadillac has power windows!” – me in the 1980s) now is merely expected. (“Dad, are you really saying you had to hand crank the car windows on your parents’ wood-paneled station wagon?” -my kids, now).

As you prioritize and roadmap using Kano, remember this pattern of decay. Product teams are often going up a down escalator, and you may need to increase investment just to maintain customer satisfaction. That’s the tyranny of expectations.

If you’re a product manager currently using the Kano model as simply a way to visualize features, try some of these additional techniques to get even more out of the model.

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