"Delighting" in Product Features

By Bob Seidensticker

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Not all product features are of equal importance. The Kano model helps identify those features that will be especially appreciated by the customer.

I once stayed in a hotel in Yokohama, Japan where each guest room had an unusual bathroom. As is typical in Japanese hotels, there is no exhaust fan, and when the guest steps out of the shower, the mirror is completely fogged up. But in this bathroom, a square region directly over the sink was always clear. It took a little time to figure out how it works (a hot plate behind the mirror keeps that area clear), but it takes no time to realize that this is a good thing.

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This is an example of a delighting feature. It’s unexpected, it’s a pleasant surprise, and understanding its value takes no effort or training and is instantaneous. Of all the attributes of that hotel room, guess which one I tell people about?

Feature Lists

Rare is the IT project that doesn’t have more features than time to implement them. How do we sort through them? We can rank them by how much effort they will take to implement; how loudly customers demand them; or how well they will shore up our product in response to the features in competing products?

Think of how features please customers. We often think of quality versus customer satisfaction as being linear. For example, suppose we’re building a car. Fuel economy around 15 mpg would be rated poor, 25 mpg might be good, and 45 might be excellent.

It’s roughly linear — the higher the mileage, the happier the customer. Cost works the same way — the lower the cost for an individual car model, the higher the satisfaction. But many features are not linear. The Kano model (developed in the 1980s by Dr. Noriaki Kano) helps make sense of this.

In the Kano model, fuel economy and cost are known as "compared features." If I’m in the market for a car, I will compare these across all cars. I’ll also ask: Are the seats comfortable? Attractive? Easy to clean? How about the engine—what’s the power? Reliability? Ease of maintenance? And so on.

Effort put into improving these features will be repaid by proportionately increased customer satisfaction.

The next category is the "expected features." The customer assumes these features and pays little attention to them. In the case of a car, for example, it’s expected that it will have an engine, seats, seat belts, and wheels.

Doing a poor job on an expected feature produces a very unhappy customer. But doing a great job does not create an ecstatic customer. The absence of an expected feature is a problem, the presence of that feature simply removes that problem. Extra effort spent here simply gilds the lily and does little to improve the customer’s impression of the product.

In the final (and most interesting) category are the "delighting features." The customer does not expect these features but is delighted to find them. These can really sell the product.

In the car example, perhaps it has extra reading lights, power plugs in the back, an interior trunk release, or some other novel but useful feature. You may have even heard someone praise some feature of a car and say that that single feature sold them.

There is no penalty for omitting delighting features, but they are the ones that customers tell their friends about. Extra effort in this category is most rewarded.

This is the insight behind the Kano model: The value of a feature isn’t always proportional to the effort and resources that go into making it.

Note that delighting features are usually fleeting advantages. Features gradually migrate from delighting to compared to expected. In Henry Ford’s day, engine innovations were the delighting features. These have long since moved into the expected category and the focus today is on features like Bluetooth connectivity or navigation systems.

It may be frustrating to be on the leading edge and see your features soon copied by competitors, but that’s life. A single permanent competitive advantage is only a dream, but an environment that continually creates new temporary advantages is possible. For example, Apple has made a good business by creating a steady stream of new products full of delighting features.

Using the Kano Model

The next time you sort through the wish list of a new project, consider how your features fit into the three Kano categories. And make sure you look for opportunities in the third category — the boost that delighting features give to selling the product can far outweigh the effort in creating them.

The battles today are often fought over compared features. Compared features are indeed important and can’t be ignored. But effort spent on delighting features can provide a powerful competitive advantage.

Sort your features according to the Kano model, with delighting features first. How would you rearrange your schedule if this Kano prioritization was your only consideration?

Most products ship with many bugs. Eliminating all of them would not improve the product enough to justify the delay. Similarly, providing superfluous quality or unremarkable features does not help the customer as much as working on delighting features.

Let me end with one more example. Hertz drops off its preferred customers right at their car, and (surprise!) the trunk pops open at the command of the bus driver. This clearly identifies the car and lets the driver put the luggage in without rummaging for the keys. Sure, it might save only ten seconds, but how many people do you suppose told friends about this feature after they first saw it? That’s a delighting feature — and a competitive advantage.

Bob Seidensticker is an engineer who writes and speaks on the topic of technology change. A graduate of MIT, Bob has more than 25 years of experience in the computer industry. He is author of Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006) and holds 13 software patents.