A UXers guide to competitor reviews
6 minutes read
“Good artists copy, Great artists steal”
I wouldn’t describe myself as a great artist like Pablo Picasso. In fact, I would be stretching it to describe myself as even a good artist. I am however a prolific thief. Not in a bad way, I hasten to add, I don’t around robbing banks and burgling people’s houses, no, I like to steal good designs. I’m like a magpie, collecting all sorts of shiny and pretty things to store in my nest. I primarily do this during a competitor review, an activity I diligently carry out as part of every project I undertake.
A competitor review can not only provide design inspiration, but is important to get an idea of the range of alternative products and services that are open to users. It can also provide an insight into the likely mental model that a user might apply – their thought processes for how something works in the real world.
Competitor reviews are an essential step towards good UX design, which is why I’ve put together this short guide based on what I’ve found to be most useful over the years. It outlines some hints and tips for carrying out competitor reviews and some things to think about to get the most out of this invaluable UX activity.
Carrying out a competitor review
Carry out at the start of each project
As I’ve mentioned, I try to carry out a competitor review as part of every project I undertake, and would urge you to do likewise. A review is best undertaken early on in a project, during the discovery phase. Carrying out a review early on helps to inform and inspire the design process and can help to identify the sorts of products and services that a user will be judging your offering against.
Time-box the competitor review
For a lot of domains, you could spend weeks and weeks investigating the competition. However, whilst hugely useful, competitor reviews are just one step of the design process, so you don’t want to spend too much time on them. I usually find 1-2 days is more than enough, although if you’re working within a design or Agile sprint, you might only have half a day, or even a few hours to play with.
The more reviewers, the better
When carrying out a competitor review it’s good to include as many reviewers as possible. Not only will you get different perspectives, but you’ll immerse others within a domain and get them thinking about how competitors have tackled design challenges. A good approach is to identify competitors to review as a group, and then to divide a conquer these reviews within the team.
Find out which competitors users use
How do you know which competitors to review? Well, a good place to start is to ask users which products and services they use. A quick survey can be an excellent way to do this, or it might be an area you investigate as part of early user interviews. Market reports, such as those put together by companies like Forrester and Econsultancy are also an excellent starting point, or even something as simple as looking at which apps and websites are most popular with users.
Review related products, not just direct competitors
When drawing up the range of competing products and services to review, don’t just limit yourself to direct competitors. For example, when I worked on a project to redesign the checkout process for a travel website I also looked at how other industries allowed users to configure complex products on their website, such as car manufacturers and bespoke furniture makers. By doing this you can often identify interesting design ideas and approaches that might be applicable to the domain that you’re tackling.
Experience competitors first hand
It’s not always possible due to time constraints, but the best way to review a competing product or service, is to experience it first-hand. In the world of service design, this is rather charmingly called a Service Safari. For example, if you’re designing a fitness app, you might try working out using some of the leading current fitness apps.
Focus on key user jobs and tasks
When reviewing a competitor, don’t just blindly go through their product or service, like some late-night channel hopper looking for something of interest. Instead, focus on the key user jobs and tasks. Much like a usability review, it’s good to start by defining what it is that users will by trying to accomplish. You can then look at how well the product or service supports users in doing this. For example, if you’re reviewing podcast apps you might consider jobs such as listening to a podcast, discovering new podcasts and finding out about new episodes being released for favourite podcasts.
Capture images, lots of images
I’m like a trigger happy tourist when I carry out competitor reviews, snapping photos and screenshots left right and centre. I advise you to do likewise because I find that images are the best way to quickly capture and then review what you’ve found during a competitor review. To help me do this two of my favourite screen capture applications are ScreenHunter on Windows, and Skitch on Mac.
Collect details in one place
When carrying out a competitor review it’s hugely useful to have all the material in one place to go through together. Ideally this is on a ‘competitor review wall’ somewhere, but due to remote teams, overzealous office cleaners and obsessively neat and tidy office managers, this isn’t always possible. If this is the case then it’s best to set-up a virtual board using a tool such as Mural or Milanote. Sketch can also be a great tool for creating a large virtual collage of competitor review material. Be sure to include all your images, along with post-it style notes and comments.
Ditch the template
If you carry out a Google search for “Competitor review template” you’ll get lots and lots of tabular templates coming back. I’m not a fan of these sorts of templates (such as the one below from Parimala Hariprasad) because they’re all text, and no imagery. I’d recommend ditching the template and instead using images and post-it styles notes to capture your competitor reviews.
Organise by feature, not just by product
As you can see in the template above, most competitor reviews are organised by competitor, not by feature. The problem with this is that for a given feature or design pattern, it’s quite hard to compare across different competitors. Instead I’d recommend organising your material by feature, such as navigation, or homepage.
A good way to do this is to map photos and screenshots against the different stages of a user journey (see an example below for fitness mobile apps). Use a row for each competitor so that you can still easily follow the user journey for each different product or service.
Look for trends and common design patterns
When reviewing competitors try to identify common trends and design patterns. For example, if you’re reviewing competing mobile apps you might identify common features, icons, terminology, navigation styles and so on. Even if you think that you can do better, be mindful that the users are likely to expect your design to follow similar conventions, so bucking the trend might go against their established mental model.
Run competitor user studies
Why speculate as to which of your competitors have the best performing products and services, when you can find out directly from users? Using remote testing tools such as usertesting.com and whatusersdo you can very quickly set-up a quick user study to find out how well your competitor’s website or mobile app performs. If you want to carry out a face-to-face user study, checkout my usability testing hints, tips and guidelines for some useful advice.
Utilising competitor reviews
Discuss the review as a team
Having carried out a competitor review, and collated stacks and stacks of photos, screenshots and notes, now is the time to get together as a team to review what you’ve found out. Ideally you should do this around your ‘competitor review wall’, or your virtual wall, if you don’t have a real one. As a team discuss which interesting ideas and designs you’ve found. Which of your competitors should you be stealing from, er I mean getting inspiration from?
Don’t blindly copy ideas and designs
Time and time again I see teams blindly copy ideas, features and design patterns from competitors without fully thinking through whether it’s something they should be copying. Burger menus are a good example. Not too long ago every mobile app had a burger menu, even though navigation bars that are always displayed are generally a better option.
Unless you know that an idea or design works, then be very wary about copying it wholesale. You might assume that a competitor has tested a design until the cows come home, but that assumption is not always correct.
A competitor review can not only provide design inspiration, it can provide an insight into the user’s mental model and the range of alternative products and services open to them. Carry out a competitor review for each project using these hints, tips and guidelines and you’ll not only be able to steal great designs, you’ll be in a much better position to provide a superior user experience to your competitors.