Competitor Research

Real products exist in real markets

The fable of the solitary genius that innovates in a vacuum is a dangerous myth when your job is to create competitive products

Updated June 03, 2019

Whether you are just getting started in design or at the kicking off a new project, in both instances you are thrust immediately back into the realm of the beginner. With the likely instructions that guided you to this point, “We want to build X to reach Y market,” now is not the time to begin sketching out possible solutions.

Now is the time for competitive research.

There are three distinct phases to this work, and they work together to help you answer these questions:

  • Who are your main competitors?
  • How do real users perceive these products?
  • How do these competitors acquire customers?
  • Based on the data collected, where are the opportunities for success?

This moment is when you may encounter dissent from your colleagues. Their arguments will generally possess a “not wanting to copy” and “we already know who our competition is” air to them. However, the given the same set constraints the likelihood that you won’t create something similar to your competition is much higher if you haven’t researched their product and others in the same space.

Your job is to create something better, and you can’t do that without studying the current standards.

So with this issue addressed, let’s break down what you’ll need to accomplish.

Understanding the goal

Whether you work for a large corporation or a small startup, there is a reason you are trying to solve a particular problem or wandering into a new market. Understanding why this initiative is happening now is a critical component in identifying the risks and opportunities presented by the competitors you will find.

In some instances, a market or technology change has made the opportunity possible. Other times, the challenge might be related to the next evolutionary step in an existing product or market. Regardless of the origin, understanding the source will point you in the right direction.

Scan the field

With an understanding of why discovering who you are competing against is relatively straightforward. You may even have a list that of some legitimate contenders in mind. What you will likely find is that as you dig, you will begin to uncover new potential competitors as you conduct your research.

For instance, if your company were a publisher and considering releasing its platform for other publishers to use, you’d likely first start your work by researching a platform like Wordpress. That’s a brand name that you’ve probably come into contact with at some point (as that is the backbone for about 25% of the internet).

As you dig into Wordpress, you’d uncover other competitors like Wix, Weebly, and Ghost. You’ll immediately begin to notice differences between how the platforms position themselves to reach slightly different groups of users. Adjacent to these you’d discover other companies like your that offered a platform for users but the platform wasn’t the main product of the company itself. The Washington Post’s Arc and Vox’s Chorus platforms would fit into this description.

As you work, you should begin storing your information in a shared location that can provide easy access for your team. Google Sheets is an excellent place to start, but as your work grows more sophisticated platforms like AirTable or Miro may be better suited for your user research tasks.

The first information you should add to your documentation is the basic information regarding each product. The data points you want to collect include but are not limited to:

  • Name of product (obviously)
  • URL (of service being researched, not necessarily the company website)
  • Primary positioning statement (generally on product homepage)
  • Key features
  • Cost

Determining how established the product is can be a be tricky proposition because everyone casts the product in a favorable light. If you can uncover the age of a product or the number of active users there are on the platform, make a note of it but don’t invest a lot of time finding this often misleading information.

Heuristic testing

Before you can report back to your team how something works or ask a user to walk through a test of the competitor’s product, you need first to attempt to use the product yourself.

You could make a crucial mistake at this moment by underestimating the need for rigor in your testing. Many take the task of testing a competitors product too casually, opting to listlessly poke about the product without any clear path or objective.

Years ago, Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen/Norman Group worked with Rolf Molich to craft a set of principles to guide heuristic testing efforts. The principles Nielsen compiled provide a much-needed structure to your exploration, allowing you to be more deliberate as you continue discovery and begin your testing.

While Nielsen’s list of principles is relatively broad, I created a worksheet to guide your study and simplified the principles into a set of testable observations that you can follow to get started.

  • Is it easy to tell when a task is executed?
  • Upon arrival, does this platform match initial user expectations?
  • Can users undo/cancel/go back if they make a mistake?
  • As a user works through the platform, do the components behave predictably?
  • Does the platform helpfully guide users away from potential failure?
  • Are controls easy to find or is the user expected to remember where they are?
  • Does the platform allow both beginners and experts to feel welcome?
  • Has the interface been edited to remove unessential controls and prompts?
  • Should the user experience failure, does the system inform the user why?
  • Can the user fall back to a place where they can search for an answer?

That’s not an exhaustive list, but it is a great place to start if you aren’t sure where to begin your exploration. After working through the first few examples, you’ll begin to generate your curiosities about the platform you’re using, and your own set of heuristics will begin to take shape and guide you through the platforms you’ll be researching.

As you work, you will record your findings for each platform into your competitor documentation for later reference. Be sure to take screenshots of quality examples and items that illustrated the type of failure you want to avoid.

Seek out more opinions

Now armed with a deeper understanding of the competition and how their products work, it is time to seek out the opinion of people who haven’t spent as much time reviewing and comparing the pros-and-cons of each platform.

That’s right; it’s time to talk with users.

While we’re not quite ready to interview users just yet (you are still identifying the issue), you are completely capable of testing your competitor’s product with real users.

This act will seem counterintuitive, but testing the competitor’s work will give you the first real glimpse into what works and what doesn’t. Without the feedback of an independent group of test participants, you have no idea whether your observations reflect that of other users.

What we’re looking for is triangulation between your research, the product testing you’re about to embark on, and the affinity diagram exercise should follow after that.

Associated Exercises

Name Section
Competitor Research UX Design
Competitor Research Fresh Market Project

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