Category: UX advice / Research articles

Copying, stealing, and inspiration: how to do competitor research properly

I few years ago I was working for a company when someone in our team stumbled across the website of a brand new competitor in the sector. Their site initially looked familiar, and on closer inspection it turned out they had completely copied ours.

Rather than being angry about it, I was actually more disappointed. They had copied things almost identically on the surface but implemented them poorly, creating a shoddy, knock-off experience.

I would have been impressed if they had been inspired and taken it to another level. Their version showed they had no understanding of the features we had and whether it was right for them (some really weren’t as they were a much smaller outfit).

Of course we understand why people lean on following competitors so often. It feels much safer to do something if one of the giants in your sector are doing it that way. Yet if you’ve worked for one of these big players you’ll know that many of the features they have will be disliked by internal teams and are seen more as legacy than cutting-edge.

There’s a way to do design and UX competitor analysis and it isn’t about faithfully recreating someone else’s site. Only copying one site is like only having one data point: liable to lead you completely astray.

Why do it

Like it or not some clients are going to want to go big on competitor analysis. I’ve been in meetings with clients where we were supposed to be deciding design direction and they spend most of their time on competitor websites, constantly finding new ideas: “what about this new feature?” or “what if we do what these guys have done?”

It can be frustrating but ultimately a lot of companies don’t want to take risks. You can either fight this reality or try and use the competitor analysis as a space to help them be inspired by the experiences out there.

Along with other quantitative and qualitative data, competitor analysis done right is another valuable source of evidence to design with. Studying competitor sites properly by being a user gives you the chance to see a few things:

As mentioned above, it’s important to be someone who has an opinion on what is good and what isn’t. Don’t just present a bunch of screenshots and a list of features. Looking at other sites with a critical eye allows you to study real-life examples of design features already functioning in the wild and gain ideas about how you can solve the issues for the site you’re working on.

The process

Here’s how I tackle competitor analysis properly and make sure I’m not falling into the rip-off trap:

  1. Know what project you’re working on and focus on that. It’s hard to analyse complete websites in sufficient depth so pick the area you want to look at, e.g. a checkout flow or the landing experience. The competitor analysis should only come after you’ve understood the problem areas of the site you’re working on (see the how step in my evidence-based framework).
  2. Decide what it is that you want to find out about your competitors. This should relate to the challenges you’re dealing with in your project and areas you want to improve. If you’re redesigning a checkout flow for a sofa company perhaps you want to know how product customisation is done, how delivery information is displayed, how account creation is handled, etc. I work with my client to come up with 5-8 of these ‘categories’.
  3. Now come up with your list of competitors to study. Your client will know some key competitors they have their eye on, but you should be able to suggest a few that operate in a similar space but are less obvious. For example with a customisable sofa site it might also be worth looking at customisable t-shirt sites. I want at least 6 sites to look at, but can go up to 12 if it’s a big study.
  4. At this point you visit your competitor sites and screengrab the relevant pages and sections. I then store them in a shared folder with my client, so they know what I’m referencing. I also use a spreadsheet to show everything I looked at with brief notes about each feature. This way even if you don’t mention certain competitors for certain features in your report, you can show they were studied and considered.
  5. Finally I put together a competitor research report structured by the categories we’ve decided upon in step 2. This report covers the four areas discussed above but with a focus on what’s standard and the more interesting ‘leading approaches’. e.g. most sites offer a basic colour and material selector for products but the best site allows for 3D custom product viewing.

If you do the above and actually test out the sites acting as a user, you’ll know which parts are working better than others. In your report you can justify which approaches to focus on and you should be able to end it with recommendations for how to combine the best bits for an effective design.

If you want to save a bunch of time when it comes to the reporting, I’ve made a report template here that gives you the slide structure I use.

A competitor analysis on its own isn’t enough though, you should combine this with other evidence on what your users are doing to help you work out the approaches that meet your users’ needs, which will allow you to design a truly effective solution.

Last updated on 15 October 2019
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