Competitive Analysis for UX: A Guide for Product Designers
As a product designer, you don’t just want to create a product that’s as good as your competitors. You want to make one that’s far better.
Obviously, there’s a large financial aspect to this desire. A product that meets your users’ needs has a much better chance of performing well than one that doesn’t, and will make your company more money. If your product is successful, you’ll be in the running for promotions, raises or any other honor your employer can throw at you.
But it’s also a matter of pride, isn’t it? You want to design an awesome product because you’re a designer, and it’s a matter of professional integrity. Your user base deserves the best, and you want to be the one to give it to them.
In short, you want to outshine your competitors’ products not just because you owe it to your employers, but because you owe it to yourself.
To do this, you’ll need to conduct what’s called a competitive analysis. If you’re working on a big UX team, you might have a UX researcher or two that could help you. If you’re not, it’ll fall on you to carry one out.
The bad news is that carrying out a competitive analysis well requires a significant amount of work. The good news is that if you put the effort in, the rewards are substantial.
This guide will help you get started. We’ll cover:
- What a competitive analysis is
- Why it’s so important
- A five-step guide to carrying out a competitive analysis
What is a competitive analysis?
A competitive analysis collects quantitative and qualitative data about competitor companies and their products. If you can analyze this data insightfully, you’ll be able to use it to tweak your product design strategy (and, further down the line, your marketing/sales strategy) to improve on their strengths and capitalize on their weaknesses.
What should a competitive analysis contain?
At a minimum, you should aim for:
- A market overview, including general information about your competitors (products and services, price points, market share, target markets, etc)
- User demographics
- Product features – pay special attention here to any features that are unique to certain companies
- The branding, language, and visual design competitor companies use for their products
This will allow you to identify where you can make your product stand out, as well as suggest potential expansion opportunities. Has a particular software provider’s market share decreased over the past few years? If so why, and who’s picking it up? Could you move in on that user base with the right marketing and the right features?
Overall, a competitive analysis gives you a clear view of where the market’s at and how your planned product could fit within it.
Why is competitive analysis so important?
Two key reasons here:
- It’s a potential well of inspiration for your own product design
- It will make building a business case for your product much, much easier
“Great artists steal”
Obviously, you don’t want to end up on the wrong side of intellectual property laws, so leave any copyrighted or patented technology well alone.
On the other hand, you can and should be taking inspiration from your competitors’ feature sets and user journeys. They’re certainly taking inspiration from yours.
It’s not so much a case of copying outright as using this as a base for your own creativity. Take your competitors’ features and make them better for your product. Beat them at their own game.
Selling your project internally
As a product designer, you may have to pitch to internal stakeholders to convince them that what you’ve designed is commercially viable. The information you gather as part of your competitive analysis will be fundamental in building this out.
The senior execs you talk to will want to know exactly what the state of the market is, whether there is potential for growing the company’s market share and how your product would stand out from others. Even if you’re not pitching to a board directly, it’s useful for you to be able to field these questions from other colleagues to get them on-board with your vision for the project.
The more you can support your ideas with data, the easier this will be.
How to carry out a competitive analysis
- Identify your competition
This is the most research-heavy part of the process. It might take a little while, but don’t be tempted to rush. The more time you put in at the start of your competitive analysis, the more useful the results will be.
Before you can analyze your competitors and drill down into their product features, you first need to identify who those competitors are.
There are various ways you can do this; the following are a good starting point:
- ‘Common knowledge’: you know these competitors well already, as a matter of course. Apple knows it competes with Google. Oracle knows it competes with SAP. List these obvious competitors first.
- Customer discovery/UX research: your user panel might have mentioned some comparisons between your software and others’. Write them down and remember them for occasions like these.
- Google using potential keywords: simply think about what sort of keywords potential customers would use to find you, and type them into Google to see who else comes up.
- Trade press articles: those ‘top 10 software systems for X’ articles are useful to figure out who’s on the radar, and where you need to aim if you’re not on the radar already.
If workable, it’s worth bringing together a small team from across the business to help you here, as different departments will have different knowledge pools.
Your customer service team might have heard customers comparing your software to other, similar tools (favorably or otherwise), for example – or your marketing team might be running a campaign for which they did a lot of competitor research earlier in the year. You’ll never know unless you ask.
Compile a spreadsheet or Trello board (or however you want to work) with company names and websites. As a UX designer, you’ll need to document the following:
- The number of users or downloads each competitor product has (if available)
- User demographics (E.g. if it’s a B2B product, is it being marketed to enterprise or small business?)
- How much the product costs, and what are the differences in pricing plans if it’s a SaaS
- The key features each product offers, and which are unique to each competitor
- How long each product has been on the market
As an aside, your marketing/product teams might want the following included – so add that to the table too and keep your eye out for anything that might help them out.
- Market share, and how that has changed over the past five or ten years
- Financials (if available) – their latest results (and how they justified them), and share price
- Social presence
- Branding – make sure to find some visual examples of this for reference
- Industry verticals
You might have to work hard to find this information. A good starting place is software review sites like softwareadvice and Capterra – these allow you to run side-by-side comparisons of different products, laying out feature sets, platform differences and more.
You could also download your competitors’ gated content (for example, white papers and buyers’ guides), which tend to offer a more in-depth look at their product offering than standard blog posts – though remember to use a non-work email address if you don’t want them to catch you snooping!
- Understand the reasoning behind your competitors’ products
Any products are, ultimately, solutions to a particular problem.
To really understand your competitors’ products – and to end up with a better design strategy as a result – you’ll need to sit down and ask yourself some fundamental questions about what their products do.
Identify the reasons behind your competitors’ success by honing in on ‘why’ questions. From here, you can better understand why your competitors design their products in certain ways, and see the logic behind common design tropes in your industry.
Your first question here should be ‘why does this problem exist?’. – work from there.
Then move onto ‘what’ questions to understand the differences between your product and your competitors’ products; where they excel and where you excel; where you come up short and where they come up short.
What features have your competitors introduced to solve the problems identified above? What technology do they use, and what platforms do they make their product available on? What aftercare or customer service guarantees do they offer?
These are all essential in creating a solid understanding of your competitors’ design strategy – and its strengths and weaknesses – before moving onto the next stage:
- Use your competitors’ products and examine their user journeys
The best way to really get to grips with your competitors’ service design is to familiarize yourself with their products.
Handily, lots of vendors offer free trials of their software for a limited time (typically, a week to a month). Whilst some are pretty vigorous about who they offer these to, other vendors take a no-questions-asked, no card-details-needed approach.
If you can’t get free trial access, consider paying for a subscription for a short time, or depending on the product, buying it outright.(quick note here – make sure your project manager sets aside some money for this in the project budget).
While not a replacement for using the software itself, but you could also look at your competitors’ video demos. These are great for understanding your competitors’ thinking behind particular user journeys
Take extensive notes, keeping in mind the following considerations. These are all centered around addressing ‘how’ your competitor has designed their product.
- How have your competitors responded to user needs or offered solutions to particular pain points?
- How well do they respond to these needs? (check review sites like Trustpilot, Capterra or similar to get a good idea of this)
- How does the look, feel and language your competitor uses affect the user’s experience of this particular product?
You want a full picture of how they’ve designed their service, so don’t stop at the product itself. Dive into any product-related emails you receive (like registration, email validation or error notification) and scan their customer service social media feeds to see how they deal with queries.
You can then start to think about the ultimate ‘how’ question:
‘How can we do it better?’
- Analyze, analyze, analyze
Take all that data and analyze it to see how it stacks up against your current ideas for your product.
- How much overlap there is between your user demographics
- The percentage of similar features your products have
- Where your features outperform their features, and where your competitors’ outperform yours
- Users’ opinions of your product versus your competitors’ (you could use Trustpilot reviews or similar, NPS scores, reviews on software comparison sites and social media comments to do this)
…and anything else you think of as stemming from these categories. To an extent, this will depend on your industry and the type of product you want to create. If you’re building a mobile app, for example, you might have a look at the percentage of your competitors that support both Android and iOS operating systems, or which features the free version of their app has versus the paid-for version.
There’s no such thing as ‘drilling too deep’ here. The more detailed you get, the more likely it is you’ll create a fantastic product that blows all the competition out of the water – and reap the rewards usability-wise.
- Bring it all together
Now’s the time to think strategically.
You know who your competitors are and what they’re doing. You’ve turned their product inside out to understand their features, the logic behind their user journeys and how users respond to this.
Now, start to think about how you could improve on that for your product. Creating your own versions of their successful features is fine, but like any good designer, the question on your mind should be ‘how can we make this better?’ rather than ‘how can we make something similar?’
Post competitive analysis, you’ll also have a much better idea about where your existing products aren’t meeting user expectations and how to solve that.
As well as adding new things to keep up with the competition, make sure you patch up any issues your existing feature set throws up.