Writers can adopt a tool from the product designer’s toolkit—The Kano Model—to help focus their writing, improve message quality, and just maybe delight their reader, too.

Copywriters as product designers

What could writing and product design have in common? Well, written messages and products are both tangible ‘things’ that exist to serve a purpose—to do some kind of a job for people. If, like me, you define ‘design’ broadly, as user-centered problem solving, than copywriting and product design are two sides of the same coin. And, as it turns out, product designers have a lot to teach writers.

The Kano Model

The Kano Model's categorization of attributes can be helpful to writers, too.
Quality management researcher Professor Noriaki Kano published his namesake model in the eighties. As a tool to maximize product quality and make the most of resource expenditures, it groups product features into three types of features:

  1. Threshold. This is the stuff that makes or breaks a product—it better be there, or the product is just not viable. Users expect it. Think of brakes on a car: you probably wouldn’t climb into vehicle that didn’t have any!
  2. Performance. This is nice-to-have stuff. Nothing groundbreaking, but these features make the user experience better. Think of cruise control: your car doesn’t need it but it sure is nice to have if you’re out on the highway.
  3. Excitement. This is the ground-breaking, product-differentiating, wow-factor stuff. These features often surprise the user—they’re new and unexpected—and they create delight. Think of a self-parking system on a car: the first time you drive a vehicle with this feature, you might intentionally seek out street parking just to watch in awe as the car maneuvers into the spot, all by itself.

The Kano Model also happens to be dynamic: it recognizes that expectations change over time. As we become more regularly exposed to something that is initially new and cool, we get used to it and grow to expect it.

An easy example of this is touchscreens on our smartphones. In 2007, they were new and amazing. In 2014, they’re so common that phones with a physical keyboard are relegated to a niche market.

Okay so maybe now you’re thinking “Yeah, okay, that’s great, Kano is great and all–but what does this have to do with writing?”

Why think about Kano when writing

It boils down to effective problem solving. Like any product, service or interaction, copy exists to solve a problem—in this case a communication problem. But writing is an open-ended exercise; there are an infinite number of possible solutions.

Kano can help clearly define the problem your copy needs to solve. It helps identify and rank priorities—the must-haves, the nice-to-haves, and the attention-getting differentiators. Drawing those distinctions can help you focus, write faster, and make your message both more effective and contextually appropriate for the reader.

How to apply Kano-thinking

First, let’s translate those three feature categories into a writing context:

Threshold

This is the bare bones message. The single most important reason the copy exists at all. Ask yourself: Why am I writing? What is the one thing the reader absolutely needs to know?

Performance

This is the structure, formatting, readability, and understandability. The easier the message is to understand and absorb, the better its performance. Ask yourself: What details will help make my message stronger? How can I word my message to engender trust from my reader?

Excitement

Really, I think this comes down to thoughtful expressions of personality. Revealing who you are. Humour definitely fits the bill. Honesty and openness work great here, too—revealing truths that might otherwise make you feel vulnerable, admitting faults or human-ness. Ask yourself: How or what can I say that will (positively) surprise and delight my reader?

A Kano-ized process in action

You might use these questions to focus drafts. Your first draft could be about getting down that must-have message. The second go-through could be about massaging your copy to read better—be more specific, contextually appropriate, and persuasive. Finally, that third go-through could be about nailing the brand voice and adding some kind of spin—some twist to really hook your reader into taking action.

To really test this approach out, I played around with writing a pay-per-click ad for tech recruitment agency Recruiting Social. Google Adwords limits headlines to 25 characters, the first line of description text to 35 characters and the second line of description text to 35 characters (95 characters total—less than a tweet!). So in other words: this has got to be one focused, purposeful little piece of writing.

Round 1. The must-have message. Speaks for itself:

First draft of a copy-written Google Adwords ad

Round 2. The performance boost. More specific language, and a reference to pain that the target audience is familiar with:

Second draft of a copy-written Google Adwords Ad

Round 3. The excitement builder. Okay, so not quite heart-pounding excitement, but more on-brand language that maybe hopefully shows “we get you and we get what you need”:

Third draft of a copy-written Google Adwords Ad

What else might excitement look like, in copy form? Check out the footer from HighTail.com:

Example of delightful copy on HighTail.com's website footer

“P.S. You look great today!”

Mailchimp also does this fantastically well—check out their Voice & Tone brand writing guide.

It’s about focusing your writing

Considering the Kano model when writing can help you identify and focus on the top quality-enhancing message components. It helps you not only communicate efficiently, but create a reading experience that exceeds reader expectations and enhances their relationship with your product or service, and your brand.

Additional reading

Huge thanks to the writers below. Otherwise I would’a known nothin’ about Kano:

Build your brand with every word you write

Want your customers to love you? Sign up for weekly tips and articles on how to nail your brand’s written customer experience. Because I dare you to name a successful business built with no writing.

Gain a little something useful. Unsubscribe anytime. Why not, eh?