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

If you’ve worked in design, product, or marketing then you’ve probably had a conversation like this with management or a client when designing something new:

You: “Here’s our new feature design based on our analytics and feedback from our users”
Manager/client: “Yeah, looks OK but a bit risky. What do Amazon/Airbnb/Uber/[insert major player here] do? Lets just take a look and maybe do that. It’s bound to work well.”
You: [sigh]

I know I’ve had this. Of course we understand why people lean on following competitors so much. It feels much safer and more solid if one of the giants are doing something in a certain way. However if you’ve worked for one of these big players you’ll know that some of the features they have are actually disliked by internal teams and are more legacy than cutting-edge.

I once worked on a site that was wholesale copied by a new company in the sector and after being angry about it, I was actually mostly disappointed. They had copied things almost exactly 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).

A proper way to look at competitors

Along with quantitative metrics and qualitative user tests, competitor inspiration is another valuable source of data. At its heart you are looking for things that work and patterns that users will already understand. Only copying one site is like only having one data point: liable to lead you completely astray.

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

  1. Create a long list of all the competitors in your space or companies with similar business models. I know I default to spreadsheets for organising information and it can be good for storing lots of details, but in this case a normal text document or Evernote or even a Trello board will be better. This is because you’ll want to get images in there.
  2. If your list is only five to ten long then you can probably visit them all. If not, just pick five or six of the big players. Or five or six that represent a spread of different types of competitor.
  3. Check each of the pages/screens that are relevant to you. You probably have a good idea of how the sites will be structured. For example, if you’re an ecommerce site, you’ll want to make sure you check the landing pages, search, product pages, and checkout flow.
  4. Now visit these sites or apps and screengrab examples of the different pages/screens. Paste these into your doc or attach them to a Trello card for each. Then write down your notes next to them: thoughts on what works well and what doesn’t.

If you do the above you’ll have a systematic understanding of your competitors and you’ll be able to spot the common patterns. If you’ve actually tested the sites out you’ll know if any are working better than others. If you think about the notes you write on them you’ll be able to justify why one is better than another. You’ll be better informed than at least 90% of the people you work with and able to justify your arguments. Later on you can complete the rest of your long list and become a true expert.

Shopping iPhone apps reviews

Introducing research for ecommerce apps

I’m about to start doing something similar to competitor analysis and will be putting it on this site. I’m calling it in-app shopping. I’m going to be looking at ecommerce iPhone apps as I want to take a deeper look at how the best in this sector do it. I’m going to be posting short videos of different sections of apps with my comments—for apps videos are more valuable than screenshots as motion is such an important part of the experience.

Ecommerce mobile apps are an interesting growth area. More and more purchasing is happening on mobile and a lot of that is moving from the web to in-app—it was the biggest growth category in 2014 with a 174% increase in usage. In fact Apple have just recognised this and have introduced a new category in the app store for shopping apps. The common wisdom used to be that discovery and purchasing would happen on the web but the convenience and ease of doing things in an app now seems to trump all.

I hope in-app shopping will be a useful resource for those looking to get started in the mobile space. I’ll be updating it with a bunch of new apps every week and you can sign up to be notified.

Last updated on 11 November 2015

competitors / research / app design / apple / iphone / shopping / ecommerce / design process /

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