A client of mine recently asked their customers a single question. They provided a long list of features, and asked, “For this product, which of these features do you most prefer?”

This seems like a straightforward question. A novice would take the results and immediately begin developing whatever features were selected most frequently.

But my client is unusually savvy when it comes to product development. They dug deeper, and questioned if customers selected features they’ve come to expect from the product category… or if they selected more distinctive features that could represent opportunities to provide unique value to customers – i.e. features that really differentiate competing products from one another.

It’s vital to understand unmet customer needs (the “sexy” data product development folks love to get because it sparks cool innovation ideas) AND understand basic customer expectations (the “table stakes” needed just to play in the game).

Customers develop expectations about your product before they even become your customer. Once they are your customer, these expectations impact their level of satisfaction with your product.

In other words, product developers need to know what features customers view as “standard” and what is still perceived as “exotic” (i.e. it still differentiates competitors from one another because not every product delivers it).

Noriaki Kano of the Tokyo University of Science developed a theory of product development in the 1980’s that helps provide clarity. His model has a more sophisticated categorization scheme than “standard” vs. “exotic.” Kano plots features on a grid with “feature presence” and “happiness” forming the two axes.

Five product feature categories fall along this grid. We can consider them with the example of a car:

  • Satisfiers are those features that produce more satisfaction the more they are present and vice versa. Think ‘leg room’ in a car: more is better, less is worse.
  • Delighters produce satisfaction when present, but do not disappoint when they are gone. Think about cutting edge technology. Self-driving ability is sure to be a Delighter in the near future, but no one dings current cars that don’t have this feature.
  • Disappointers do not produce satisfaction when they are present, but they certainly disappoint when they are omitted. For example, cup holders are an expected feature of cars – while they don’t excite us, we demand them.
  • Indifferent features don’t appear to have any effect on satisfaction. Retractable radio antennas always seemed like an example of this to me. Did anyone actually care that those things retracted into the hood of their car? Did it impact their car purchase decision in any way? Probably not.
  • Reverse features cause dissatisfaction when they are present. These could just be called “bad ideas.” For me, the Oldsmobile analog dashboard clock falls into this category. I don’t want it.

Here is a visual representation from Wikipedia:

Kano Model

Clearly, it doesn’t really matter what we as product developers think – only the customer perception matters. Therefore, savvy product developers have an intimate relationship with their target customers.

And, just to keep us on our toes, this categorization is in a constant state of flux. The Delighters of yesterday are the Disappointers or Indifferent features of today. They become table stakes.

Just think, cup holders may have been Delighters when they first came out. Now, who doesn’t have cup holders? I get cranky when there aren’t multiple cup holders for me to choose from!

Identifying Delighters is key to grabbing market share. Not only because these features differentiate you in positive ways from your competition, but also because a powerful Delighter can make up for less positive things elsewhere. For example, Apple’s touch screen was a Delighter that, for many customers, compensated for its lack of durability.

But, alas, Delighters don’t last forever, so you better have a plan for constant product development. When competitors all developed touch screen capability, turning Apple’s Delighter into a Dissapointer, Apple reacted by fixing its durability issue and striving to develop other Delighters for smart phone consumers.

At Vennli, we look at product benefits and features in a similar way in order to get really actionable insights into how to deliver unique value to your customers. The Vennli survey asks customers about the importance of various factors on their purchase decision and then asks them to rate competing options on these features.

The visualized results then drive action to build competitive advantage – each colored zone has implications for product strategy, sales and marketing strategy, and innovation.

vLens pins explained

This essentially takes the Kano Model and places it in the competitive context – how do you perform vs. your competition from the perspective of your customers?

For example, Delighters would fall into yellow Customer circle, because, by definition, they are features that customers want enough for it to impact their purchase decision. If your product is the only one that provides this feature, it would fall into the Green Zone. If no one offers it yet, it would fall into the Yellow Zone as an unmet need, etc.

Satisfiers and Disapointers would also find their way into the yellow Customer circle. Their placement would depend on which competitor is associated most strongly with the feature, and the distance from the heart of the circle would depend on how important the factor is to customers.

Indifferent and Reverse features would be located outside of the Customer circle in the Blue, Purple or Red Zones, depending on the competitive landscape. These represent potential opportunities to shift focus away from things that aren’t driving customer purchase behavior and reinvest in features that are more important to customers. (Often, knowing what not to bother with is just as useful to product development strategy. There are countless examples of companies that kept supporting product features that customers no longer cared about…)

So, back to the story. My client used the results of their single question to drive more in depth research into the drivers of their customers’ choice. They placed these choice factors in the competitive context of their market in order to drive product development decisions and ultimately determine their go-to-market strategy.

This conversation with their customers will continue into the future, because, as mentioned before, the landscape of customer perceptions is constantly evolving. No one can depend on current Delighters to provide competitive advantage forever – we have to constantly develop our product and messaging to maintain our advantage in the market.

Can you visualize how your customers make decisions in this way? I encourage you to give it a try, even if you’re just taking your own best guess at what product features to pick and where to place them on the three-circle vLens. Then, test your assumptions by talking with some customers. That’s when the magic happens!