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Understanding the Kano Model – A Tool for Sophisticated Designers

by Jared M. Spool
on January 18, 2011

Thanks to Sciencelakes for translating this article to Danish.

Thanks to Vitaly Mijiritsky as well for translating this article to Hebrew.

When Flickr, the photo-sharing web site, first appeared on the
scene, the designers delighted their users with a variety of
interesting innovations. One of those innovations was something that
now seems strikingly simple in concept: a customized home page.

At that time, practically every other web site had a standard home
page. When a user typed in the site’s main URL, they saw an
identical page to every other user.

Flickr’s page was different. When registered users typed
into their browser’s address bar, they saw a personalized page
complete with their own latest uploads and recent pictures from
their friends and contacts. Users we interviewed told us they found
the personalized page very exciting, including the happy “Hello”
that appeared in a different language each time they visited.

It wasn’t very long before other sites started incorporating similar
capabilities. We saw many sites with a personalized dashboard
showing recent activity. We even saw other sites copy the
multi-lingual greeting prompt.

The interesting thing is, as these innovative features propagated
into other sites’ designs, they became less remarkable and less
delightful to those sites’ users. These users rarely mentioned the
features and never seemed as excited about it as those initial
Flickr users did.

The Kano Model – A Tool for Sophisticated Designers

Years ago, we came across the work of Noriaka Kano, a Japanese
expert in customer satisfaction and quality management. In studying
his writing, we learned about a model he created in the 1980s, known
as the Kano Model.

This model predicted the reaction of users as the key elements of
Flickr’s personalized homepage propagated to other web sites. It
predicted why users were initially delighted and why the delight
faded over time.

We find the Kano Model to be an indispensable tool for designers.
Let’s take the model apart, so we can understand why it’s so useful.

The Two Dimensions of Kano: Investment versus Satisfaction

The easiest way to think of the model is on a two-dimensional grid.

Kano Model Axis Only

The two dimensions of Kano: Investment versus Satisfaction.

The horizontal axis represents the investment the organization
makes. As investment increases, the organization spends more
resources on improving the quality (remember, Noriaka was a quality
guy at heart) or adding new capabilities.

The vertical dimension represents the satisfaction of the user,
moving from an extreme negative of frustration to an extreme
positive of delight. (Neutral satisfaction being neither frustrated
nor delighted is in the middle of the axis.)

It’s against the backdrop of these two axes that we see how the
Kano Model works. It shows us there are three forces at work, which
we can use to predict our users satisfaction to the investment we

Performance Payoff

When blogging first started, a blog author needed to know basic
HTML to do anything fancy with their formatting. Many blogs were
absent of any style just simple words on the page.

The first blogging systems added basic formatting features, like
bold and italics, to their text input fields. These features would
give a small word-processing feel to an otherwise bland input tool.
Users were delighted.

The designers took the hint. They started adding more word
processing-like features. We saw bullets, justification, image
insertion, and fancy link capabilities. Each feature took more
investment and returned more satisfaction.

Kano Model performance payoff

Performance Payoff – The more organizational investment, the
more user satisfaction

We’ve all seen instances like this. By adding new features or
cleaning up the quality of the product, we generate more shouts of
delight from a thankful audience. This is the Performance Payoff,
the most visible force of the Kano Model.

Every design has a performance payoff as the design team evolves
the functionality and quality. Its key designers understand how
much delight is generated with each new feature, as it takes more
investment to garner more delight over time by just adding features
in this fashion.

Basic Expectations

Google Docs changed the game of office software. It eliminated
the notion of a file and let your data live in “the cloud.” It’s
easier to share and collaborate with colleagues than previous office
tools, since it eliminates the emailing of duplicated files.
Everybody works off the same source; each person sees the same
changes instantly.

A downside of editing in the cloud is the need for constant
connectivity. If a user is editing someplace where the connection is
spotty, intermittent problems start occurring. Something as simple
as saving a draft becomes a frustrating moment for the user, who
doesn’t know the state of their document.

Document saving isn’t a feature that will make anyone excited.
But its absence or unreliability will frustrate folks immensely.

Kano Model basic expectations

Basic Expectations: The bad frustrates, yet the good doesn’t

This is a defining trait of the Kano Model’s Basic Expectations.
Capabilities that users expect will frustrate those users when they
don’t work. However, when they work well, they don’t delight those
users. A basic expectation, at best, can reach a neutral
satisfaction a point where it, in essence, becomes invisible to the

Try as it might, Google’s development team can only reduce the
file-save problems to the point of it working 100% of the time.
However, users will never say, “Google Docs is an awesome product
because it saves my documents so well.” They just expect files to
always be saved correctly.

Basic expectations are often related to bugs and reliability.
When a Skype conversation is cut off by a bad connection, it can
frustrate the people on the call. When an e-commerce application
double charges the site’s shopper, that’s frustrating too.

However, basic expectations may just be something that matches
what the user is already familiar with, such as automatically
receiving a confirmation email after they complete a transaction.
Your users may expect your product or service to have features they
find in other products or services they frequent regularly.

As a designer, you need to pay close attention to the basic
expectations of your users. It’s easy to focus on the new and novel
elements of our design, forgetting to look back at how our users are
using our existing capabilities, while making sure we’re meeting all of
the basics.

Excitement Generators

Zappos customers report, while they often purchase using the
company’s 4-5 day free shipping frequently, they’ll receive that
order within one or two days at no extra charge. This delights the
customers, who go on to tell their friends. Zappos has a special
relationship with their shippers to accelerate the deliveries. It’s
part of their desire to “under promise and over deliver.”

Kano Model excitement generators

Excitement Generators: Design elements and features that delight the user.

There are many ways to add the Kano Model’s Excitement Generators
into the user experience. Zappos does it through their delivery
operations and customer support, but that’s not the only way.

Groupon generates delight through their clever use of advertising
copy for the products they sell. For example, a recent ad for
half-price gourmet brownies started with: “Without
chocolate, the world would still be under the oppressive rule of the
Turnip King and his tasteless parsnip army.”
Groupon’s customers
regularly say they find the clever copy delightful.’s users tell us how much they love the travel-itinerary
site’s automatic confirmation parsing feature. When the users email
their hotel or airline confirmation email to the site, it
automatically parses out the dates and locations, adding it to their
trip’s itinerary. If no itinerary exists for the reservation dates,
it automatically creates one. These Tripit users love that they
don’t have to enter a ton of information to get all their
reservation details into one, nicely formatted page.

Exploring the users’ context and overall experience helps
identify potential excitement generators. These don’t have to take a
huge investment. While Zappos invests a lot in their customer
service, writing creative copy, like Groupon’s, can be a much
simpler method to garner the user’s delight. (Copywriting is hard
and good copywriters are not cheap, but it’s easier to establish a
good copywriting practice than it is to move a distribution center
within 10 miles of the overnight shipping hub.)

Of course, excitement generators won’t delight users who are
frustrated because basic expectations aren’t met. Designers need to
ensure they are focusing on both ends of the model.

The Migration From Excitement Generator to Basic Expectations

A great model can help us understand what we’re seeing. Flickr’s
delightful home page experience, for example, became less delightful
when it started showing up in other designs.

One of the predictions that the Kano Model makes is that once
customers become accustomed to excitement generator features, those
features are not as delightful. The features initially become part
of the performance payoff and then eventually migrate to basic

Flickr’s designers did something delightfully novel by creating a
personalized home page, with a customized dashboard that showed the
users’ own photographs, contacts, and activities. As other sites
implemented similar dashboard-like pages, these users became more
accustomed to it. The feature lost its luster.

Today, many users will be frustrated if they don’t see a dashboard
page, or if they’re required to log in before seeing it. The
feature, once a delighter, is now a basic expectation.

Kano Full Model

The full Kano Model: A tool to predict user satisfaction.

Applying the Kano Model

Working with our clients, we’ve seen teams prioritize their work
using the Kano Model. They’re constantly monitoring their users’
current basic expectations, to make sure there’s nothing they’re
missing. They are always on the lookout for inexpensive ways to add
excitement generators. And they use the performance payoff to help
understand how much delight they can generate with new features.

The model becomes a great way to explain to stakeholders and project
owners how to tackle hard decisions. It’s a great way to keep teams
focused on the right priorities.

Learn to use the Kano Model to Build a Winning UX Strategy

In his virtual seminar, Jared will talk about how your competitors, existing design debt, and the evolution of ideas from innovation to market maturity all
affect how you need to design today. Read more about this seminar.

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About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.