The microstructural evolution and piezoelectric properties of lead-free ceramics (0.98-x)(Na0.5Bi0.5)TiO3–x(Na0.5K0.5)NbO3–0.02BaTiO3 (0 ⩽ x ⩽ 0.98, abbreviated as (0.98-x)NBT–xNKN–0.02BT) were investigated. The effects of the amount of NKN on the crystal structure, microstructural evolution, and piezoelectric properties were examined. The 0.93NBT–0.05NKN–0.02BT ceramics having a lower NKN content gave good performances with piezoelectric properties of d33 = 140 pC/N and kp = 21%, because of the soft additive Nb5+ ions at the B sites. However, a paraelectric cubic phase was observed in the wide range of compositions between x = 0.1 and x = 0.9. At a higher NKN content of x > 0.9, a morphotropic phase boundary (MPB) between the tetragonal and orthorhombic phases was found in the 0.015NBT–0.965NKN–0.02BT ceramics, and the piezoelectric properties were enhanced (d33 = 135 pC/N, kp = 29%). The piezoelectric properties of this system were closely related to its crystal structure.