Competitive research is a powerful tool if you understand the risks
Understanding design failures are just as important as what to design
One of the most important things you can learn from competitors is what not to do.
Whenever you join a new company or project, your team members might name-drop a few competitors in the same space. Your team has to know this to understand how they differentiate themselves from the competition.
That knowledge can be just as crucial to UX, as it allows you to understand how your product compares with others in your niche. Understanding that allows your to move beyond ‘generically good’ UX towards something catered towards your business.
This is where learning to understand the competition can come in handy.
Competitive Research offers incredible upsides (if you’re careful)
Learning from your competitors is a powerful tool, if you’re careful about it.
I’ve talked previously about how competitive analysis can help you understand a completely new field, but I’ve often learned much more than that from competitive research. To understand why, consider what happens when you conduct competitive research.
Competitive research usually involves looking at 2–4 direct competitor’s websites or more (if you have the time). This can either be done by expert review (i.e. by yourself) or through usability testing.
In other words, you’re looking a multiple finalized designs that other businesses have invested time and resources into for a similar product. They might even have built out features that you were considering in your prototypes.
If those features test poorly with users (or if they’re poorly designed), you’re basically learning from your competitor’s mistakes for free. In addition, if two competitors addressed a feature in different ways, you get to see what is the more effective way.
However, the fundamental problem with Competitive Research (and the reason to be careful) is the same reason many UX Designers don’t like it: there’s a strong temptation to copy what seems to work. This becomes easy to see whenever you do competitive research with your team.
Competitive research with teams can become window shopping
If you're doing a competitive analysis with your team, your #1 priority is to stop your team from window shopping.
Imagine one of your direct competitors is Amazon. Everyone on your team is familiar with the (pretty good) experience of searching for products on Amazon, and people also know that Amazon is successful.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that someone might suggest, "Hey, why don't we just copy Amazon's design?" This is what I mean by window shopping. When looking at your competitor’s polished products, it’s tempting to copy whatever works for them. But the reality is this often leads to inferior products.
Why? Because the context of use and environment is likely to be much different. Amazon's product templates to support millions of product listings won't work for your company, which might only have three products.
Worse yet, it might backfire: Amazon takes an impersonal, almost robotic tone to present products because they don't have time to moderate each listing. This results with products that have barely understandable names to make them easier to find.
So what works for Amazon won’t necessarily work for you.
If that’s the case, why invest the time into competitive research? It allows you to understand three crucial things:
Your user’s mental model when visiting similar sites
The strengths of your product (i.e., competitive advantage)
How do certain features typically turn out (i.e., is something a waste of time)?
User's mental model
If you're not the biggest fish in the pond, you need to review what they do because it's likely that's how your users typically think.
If your direct competitor is Amazon, your user’s mental model is going to default to how Amazon works. If your website operates differently (for example, if the search bar that's usually at the top of the page is now at the center), you need to be aware your users might need additional help (or it might take them longer).
Looking at the user workflows of competitors, especially the big players in the market, can help you understand if your user will be able to understand your site's workflow. However, many websites have the same (or similar) workflows: this is where you must pay attention to your competitive advantage.
What is your competitive advantage?
What does your company or product do better than everyone else? This is something that your company has probably invested a ton of business and marketing knowledge into, but it can be important for UX as well. For example, consider this statement:
"Our competitors have far fewer features, but they've put everything together in a nice little package. We do more stuff, but it can be overwhelming to get started."
If that's what you concluded from your Competitive Research, it seems your competitive advantage is the wealth of features we offer, even if it's overwhelming for users. There are confident design choices we might make as a result:
An overview or summary screen, which condenses details into general categories
An overlay tutorial, which highlights different parts of the interface and explains what they are
A wizard, that helps walks through setting up certain features
Alternative explanations of details, such as data visualizations
These ideas represent opportunities to lean into your product's strengths from a design perspective. Identifying your competitive advantage allows you to ideate toward a better design that isn't just a generic website: it's catered specifically to your organization.
Knowing your strength can help drive your website identity, but competitive reviews also help in one other way: they help to determine which features will be a waste of time.
Understand what features are going to be a waste of time (for you)
Competitor's sites are often the second-best prototypes of your new site. They've invested the time and effort to develop specific features to the point where they're publicly available. More importantly, they sometime waste time on a feature that's not well-received or less effective than it could be.
Having that in mind allows you to iterate on public and past failures, to make a better design. For example, imagine one of your competitive advantages is that you offer unparalleled customer service: customers will only have to wait 1–2 hours before getting a response.
How do you emphasize that in your designs? Your competitors might give you a clue as to what not to do. This might include:
A generic "Contact Us" workflow with updated language (i.e., "Thank you for submitting a comment. We will get back to you in 1–2 hours)
Vague language on the front page ("We offer 24/7 customer service")
A big "Contact Us" button in the top-right corner
Reviewing what your competitors do and the places where they made mistakes can save you a ton of time and effort in making sure that you iterate towards a better design.
Go beyond generic UX Design with Competitive research
While UX Design aims to create a great user experience, one of the most important ways to do that is to lean on your organization's strengths. A well-designed yet generic website that could fit a hundred possible businesses isn’t a good design: it’s a good design template.
By understanding your organization’s strengths, and how they are within the larger competitive market, you can turn a generic UX experience into one that is catered towards your organization.
Doing that can help your company see the value of UX, and push to advocate for greater UX Maturity. So don't be afraid to learn from your competitors. They can teach you a whole lot about what your strengths are.