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Conducting a Competitive Analysis for User Research

Learning more about your competition can help you discover your unique position in the market.

Michael Jordan—arguably the G.O.A.T. of N.B.A. basketball—knows what it takes to be the best. In the documentary series The Last Dance, we witness his insatiable desire to win, paired with his incredible work ethic and involvement in studying the game. Jordan knew he needed to understand his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses so that he could be better than them. Through intense analysis of how others played the game, he devised ways to play it better.

Image sourced from NBA.com

It turns out this same idea exists in business using a method known as competitive analysis. A competitive analysis is a research practice that compares how your product stacks up against the competition. You can use it to evaluate your product’s business, marketing, and/or usability factors and identify its strengths and weaknesses against your competitors. As explained in an article from Nielson Norman Group, “They [competitive analysis] allow you to take an in-depth look at how others solve the same design problems. The goal of any competitive evaluation is to see what competitors are doing, how they’re doing it, what’s working and what’s not.”

They allow you to take an in-depth look at how others solve the same design problems. The goal of any competitive evaluation is to see what competitors are doing, how they’re doing it, what’s working and what’s not.

Amy Schade, Nielson Norman Group

Why conduct a competitive analysis?

By conducting a competitive analysis and synthesizing the research, you gain valuable insights to improve business and design decisions. It can help you:

  • gain a better understanding of your product’s strengths and weaknesses compared to the competition
  • identify gaps and opportunities in the market
  • design for better usability
  • discover your product’s unique, competitive advantage
  • devise competitive marketing or design strategies 

In the book UX Strategy by Jamie Levy, the author says, “To be competitive, you need to know what’s out there, what has worked, and what has not worked. That’s why conducting market research on the competition is a crucial component of business strategy. You want firsthand knowledge of the good and bad user experiences provided by your competitors. If done thoroughly, the research can provide a treasure trove of insight into current trends and outdated manifestations of mental models. It will also help your team learn about the competitors, their best practices for design, and what types of customer segments use their products. To connect the dots, though, you first need to collect them.”

To be competitive, you need to know what’s out there, what has worked, and what has not worked. That’s why conducting market research on the competition is a crucial component of business strategy. You want firsthand knowledge of the good and bad user experiences provided by your competitors. If done thoroughly, the research can provide a treasure trove of insight into current trends and outdated manifestations of mental models. It will also help your team learn about the competitors, their best practices for design, and what types of customer segments use their products. To connect the dots, though, you first need to collect them.

by Jaime Levy, UX Strategy, Chapter 4

How to Conduct a Competitive Analysis

Ready to collect the dots? Here’s how you can conduct a competitive analysis.

Understand your goals

Start by determining what you’d like to gain at the end of the analysis. Consider answering some of the following questions:
Why are you doing an analysis?
What do you want to learn?
Will this research impact UX design decisions, and if so, how?

Define your competitors

Explore the landscape and list out your direct and indirect competitors. Then select a mix of 3-5 to include in your research, in addition to your product. 

direct competitor is a business in the same or very similar product/service space. For example, if you are a coffee brand, then your direct competitors also sell coffee products. 

Indirect competitors might sell a product that is adjacent to your market and still attracts your users. If you are in the coffee market, an indirect competitor might be a tea brand if your users are both coffee and tea drinkers. Even though they may not take a large chunk of your market segment right now, consider keeping a close watch in case they begin to dip further into your space. Starbucks probably didn’t see Dunkin’ Donuts encroaching into the coffee space if they were watching direct competitors only. 

Consider including sites entirely out of your competitive scope if your goal is solely to study particular interaction patterns—like adding a product to a shopping cart or creating a new account. Known as a comparative analysis, your research focuses on companies with certain interactive functionality.

Conduct your research

When conducting your competitive analysis, determine which factors you want to evaluate based on your goals. They can include business, marketing, and usability factors. Here are a few considerations for what types of information you can collect.

Business Data

  • price points
  • subscription models
  • range of services and products
  • customer reviews and loyalty

Marketing Data

  • visual brand elements
  • tone and copy style
  • sales and promotions
  • social networks 

Usability Data

  • task flows
  • loading times
  • content categories
  • navigation
  • micro-interactions and behaviors
  • user reviews
  • system requirements
  • widgets

While evaluating other products, consider some primary tasks and research users’ steps to achieve those goals. As explained in Chapter 2 of the book Understanding Your Users: A Practical Guide to User Research Methods, “If you are able to evaluate the competitor product yourself, you should identify a set of core tasks with which to compare your product (if you have one at this stage) and the competitors. This is particularly important if you plan to include functionality from the other product because you may learn that a function does not work well. Take numerous screenshots or photos and record your interaction as you conduct your evaluation.”

If you are able to evaluate the competitor product yourself, you should identify a set of core tasks with which to compare your product (if you have one at this stage) and the competitors. This is particularly important if you plan to include functionality from the other product because you may learn that a function does not work well. Take numerous screenshots or photos and record your interaction as you conduct your evaluation.”

Chapter 2 of Understanding Your Users: A Practical Guide to User Research Methods

In addition to the choices above, also capture each product’s strengths and weaknesses. A common way of tracking and organizing your data is by using a matrix, which allows you to see and compare each product side-by-side. You can use free tools like google spreadsheets or notion sheets for capturing this information.

Image sourced from the portfolio of Elise Fu. Click here for the original. http://www.elisefu.com/work-wik/

To view more visual examples of Competitive Landscapes, click on this article by Adobe.

Synthesize and Summarize

Now that you’ve collected all your data take time to assess the information. Create a summary of what you’ve learned. Identify opportunities and provide recommendations that you think would be beneficial based on your learnings. Consider using a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) or Perceptual Mapping analysis to convey valuable insights. Present your findings along with any recommendations to stakeholders and discuss the next steps.

Consider conducting a competitive analysis at the start of your next project to gain valuable insights that influence your product’s business and design success. But don’t think these files will get stashed away in a dark corner once you’ve finished. Competitive analysis documents are living/breathing documents that you should revisit and update when you see changes to the competition or the market. Your competitive analysis documents might become one of your most frequently referenced and valued research materials in this ever-changing world of evolving trends and growing technology.

Resources

Schade, Amy. (2013, December 15). Competitive Usability Evaluations: Learning from Your Competition. NNG. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/competitive-usability-evaluations/

Champagne, Christine., Iezzi, T. (2014, August 21). Dunkin’ Donuts And Starbucks: A Tale Of Two Coffee Marketing Giants. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/3034572/dunkin-donuts-and-starbucks-a-tale-of-two-coffee-marketing-giants

UX Planet. (2020, July 28). Top Things to Know About UX Competitive Analysis. https://uxplanet.org/top-things-to-know-about-ux-competitive-analysis-d91689fd8b36

Breakenridge, Deirdre. (2020, August 17). Marketing Foundations: Competitive Market Analysis. LinkedinLearning. https://www.linkedin.com/learning/marketing-foundations-competitive-market-analysis/maintaining-your-competitive-edge?u=74413660

DaSilva, Jill. (2020, June 12). A Guide to Competitive Analysis for UX Design. Adobe. https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/process/user-research/guide-to-competitive-analysis-ux-design/

Douglas, Steven. How To Do A UX Competitor Analysis: A Step By Step Guide. Usability Geek. https://usabilitygeek.com/how-to-do-ux-competitor-analysis/

Komninos, Andreas. (n.d.). Why You Should Analyze Your Competition to Design Better Solutions and How to Do It. Interaction Design Foundation. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/why-you-should-analyze-your-competition-to-design-better-solutions-and-how-to-do-it

Levy, Jaime. (2015). UX Strategy. Conducting Competitive Research, O’Reilly Media, Inc. https://www.oreilly.com/library/view/ux-strategy/9781449372972/ch04.html

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