Evaluating competition — avoiding common traps
You, or your company, is unlikely to be the first ones to think about the idea you’re currently working on. Especially in the mobile industry it ideas are rarely unique. Some new sounding ideas have less known competitors, some ideas are evolution of what has come before and some are just plain copies. There’s nothing wrong in improving on what others have done before you (although plain copying is at its best immoral, don’t do that). If we only worked on completely unique ideas we’d soon run out things to do. You don’t have to be the first, just need to be the best.
To improve on competition it’s worth looking at their products. They have built their products certain way for some reason. Figuring out if those reasons were sound and if their solutions are any good makes a lot of sense.
When looking into competition is it very easy, and very human, to fall into couple of traps. That’s what this post is all about. These are written from my own experience and from observing others. If you find yourself doing these things, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Just keep your mind open next time!
When you are building something you have probably been thinking about it for a long time. Your head and mindset is deep in certain way of thinking the problem. When you see another product it is easy to fall into looking for confirmations to your earlier beliefs and ignore contradicting evidence.
It might be that you come into the evaluation in the mindset that the competition is inferior or that your way to solve the issue is the only correct way. You might seek confirmation to superiority of your product by focusing on problems, small unpolished elements or differences in the way of approaching the issue. Be aware of the confirmation bias. We all have it and we all fall into the trap all the time.
It does go the other way as well. Maybe the competing product solves the problem the same way as you do. Is this confirmation that the way you think is correct? It might be. But it also might be that more than one person has made the same mistake. Jumping to conclusion with superficial evidence can guide you to a wrong path.
Different doesn’t mean bad
It is easy to find differences in the competing product compared to yours. It’s also easy to fall into a trap of thinking that the different way is bad or worse than yours.
We, as humans, form mental models on things we use. We look at software UI and imagine how things are connected and how they work together as a piece of machinery. When the software functionality conforms with the mental model we find it easy to use and intuitive.
People infer that a conclusion is valid if it holds in all the possibilities. Procedures for reasoning with mental…en.wikipedia.org
If you work on a piece of software you are bound to form a mental model of its inner workings (you might have even designed or built the inner workings). It means that you have a well formed and well developed mental model of your software. This easily guides you towards comparing the competition implementation to your mental model. It is very likely going to be different and cause you intuition to fail. At this point it’s easy to jump to a conclusion and say that the competition’s software is not intuitive or is not logically constructed. But is this true? Maybe it is your mental model that doesn’t match the way users actually use this software?
Beware the mob
When evaluating competition don’t do it as a team exercise. Sitting around a table together with your team mob mentality can easily take over. You’re all invested in your product and form an echo chamber of pointing out flaws. The negative features will get amplified and bringing up divergent opinions becomes more and more difficult more time passes.
Instead, find quiet time and take your time before sharing your thoughts or listening to others. Even after that be careful not to inadvertently for a lynching mob in the meeting you all come together to discuss the competition.
Ignore the bad, look for the good
I think we shouldn’t concentrate on the bad things when evaluating competition. Of course, we should learn from their mistakes when possible but verifying that a thing we think is bad is actually bad is difficult.
On the other hand, finding good things is valuable. That’s where your competition’s strong points are. Those are the things users coming from the competing product to yours will expect. That’s how your product will get compared to theirs.
I would go as far as saying that simply ignore things you don’t like in the other product. Concentrate on what is good. Find the use cases behind features missing from yours and think how you could support things you didn’t think about when building yours.
Take your time
Checking out the other product for few minutes will only give you an overview of the intuitiveness of the UI. In some rare cases that might be the main thing but I’d argue that in most products it isn’t. Of course, I appreciate the importance of intuitive UI in general. In this context I’m only talking about the comparison process.
Take time to live with the competing product. Go beyond initial impressions and use it the way it was meant to be used. You might find out that things make much more sense than what you initially thought.
Fanbois are people who are emotionally invested in a product they have bought or a company they like. So much so that they tend to ignore anything bad the company does and flaws in the products and over emphasise the good parts, or the parts they feel are good.
We all probably suffer from fanboism on some level. Turns out that it’s fairly normal thing to do. When you buy something you tend to justify the purchase by, sometimes unconsciously, ignoring bad things you encounter. More expensive the purchase more we tend to ignore bad things. Of course we do this, we’re not stupid and would never make a mistake of buying something bad.
Now, imagine if instead of buying a thing you actually built it yourself. The emotional investment is huge. You’re absolutely a fanboi of your own product. And you should be! But when evaluating competition keep it in mind. Your views are skewed and probably not fair.
Want to experience what I described above? There’s an exercise that can expose many of the issues in a safe environment.
Do you use Android phones only? Is your only phone an iPhone? Have you never really looked at the other platform? Try to get your hands on a high-end device of “the other side” and give it a go. You’ll find yourself hating many things. It’s very easy to start listing things that are all wrong on the other device. No sane person would want it to work that way. There’s simply no reason for it to work that way, right?
Learning to learn from others is easy. All it requires is for us to be conscious about our biases and other issues influencing our observations. Putting these things aside will help you gain much more from observing what have already been done. Building your product on top of the collective knowledge will push them forwards faster than starting from zero.
Learn, imitate, improve and improvise. But don’t copy
Anyways, here’s our dogs.