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.

However 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

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:

It’s actually something I’ve been doing more of recently for my clients as a UX consultant and I’ve realised what a valuable thing it can be. 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.

How to do it right

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.
  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 6-8 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, up to about 10 if some of the features are small.
  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.
  5. Finally I put together a competitor research report structured by the categories we’ve decided upon earlier. I aim to explain what the standard approach is by the competitors for each one, and highlight the more interesting and impressive ‘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 help with structure and to save a bunch of time when it comes to the reporting, I've made a report template here that you can use.]

A competitor anlaysis 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 11 February 2019

competitors / research / shopping / ecommerce / design process / evidence / data / ux /

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