Advice: Evidence methods
A competitor analysis involves assessing competitor sites to see how they solve similar user needs for their users. They can be direct competitor companies operating in the same sector or they can share some features, for example a high end jewellery brand competes with other high end jewellers but also might have customisation options similar to premium technology products.
If you’re new to working with a client this is good for giving you the market context the company are operating in, as well as what users will expect if they’ve used similar sites before. If you’re in-house you might be very clear on who the competitors and influences are, but this allows you to build up a deeper body of research to be referred to on several projects.
A decent analysis will help you gain an objective overview rather than get fixated on specific features. You should first be very clear on the issues your site has and the problems you're looking to solve. You can then go to the competitors to understand *how* they have done so and can assess how well their solutions would help your users.
You might want to solve your users' problem in a completely original way but this can cause users lots of effort to understand. People learn patterns through browsing several sites: a smart application of existing approaches will help users more intuitively know what to do.
First you need to decide what it is you want to find out about your competitors. This is defined by the problems you’re dealing with in the project and what you want to improve—you should have learned about these problems from interviews, user testing, or visitor recordings.
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. You should be able come up with about 6-8 of these ‘categories’.
It might be that you can look at the same competitor sites for every category, in which case you should aim for at least 6 to study. If your project involves several quite different categories then you should look at the most relevant sites for each category—aim for 3-4 for each one. Screengrab the relevant pages as you go, not forgetting to do it for both mobile and desktop, as they will be quite different.
When you've gathered your raw materials, choose a document format you prefer for recording your findings: it can be a spreadsheet, Google doc, or presentation. Then go through each of your categories and write notes backed up with screengrab evidence of how others are solving that problem, what approaches impressed you as a user most, and what approaches you think should be avoided.
Finally, I like to summarise my recommendations for the most effective features I think my project could incorporate. This should provide plenty of inspiration to start designing up solutions.
Clients/stakeholders saying, “Just copy these guys, they’re the best”—you shouldn’t study only one competitor because a) this is ripping someone off and b) you're missing the opportunity to learn a lot more.
Clients/stakeholders saying, “We should have feature x, everyone else has so it must be good”—maybe you should but it’s possible everyone else just copied the market leader without thinking. First understand the needs your users have, then assess the possible solutions and determine which best solves your problem.
Clients/stakeholders also saying, “We don’t want to copy anyone, we’re unique”—working on a completely new concept is rare, there’s usually someone out there doing something similar. And an analysis of others can at least help you position yourself.
Don't study irrelevant competitors, for example just because Apple are the richest company in the world doesn't mean they're right to look at for your project. Your users could be completely different. Ask clients/stakeholders to justify their suggestions, and be sure to suggest some of your own if you think you can improve on the selection.
The main two tools you'll need are something to screengrab with and something to record your findings. My current screengrabbing extension of choice is called FireShot on Chrome (I've used various others in the past but they all seem to stop working). The good thing about Chrome is you can also easily spoof mobile devices and screenshot those.
For recording findings I find Google Docs and presentations are good for this as they allow for sharing with others to comment on (free). You could also use more visual approaches like InVision (free and from $13/month) and add your notes to that.
To do a complete competitor analysis it normally takes me a full working day.
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Note: the examples in this guide are for website design, but most of the content is also applicable for native apps and software.