Enterprise UX Methodologies Series: Wrangling the Data of Competitive Analysis
Sometimes integrating modern UX into a corporation can feel like wrangling a herd of cattle, you have to keep your eye on so many different moving pieces. Some processes fit nicely in with the business. Others have to be corralled and prodded into working in the organization, with the ultimate goal being able to deliver value to the customer by representing them and their experience accurately. I believe competitive analysis is in this state right now and the more I read the more there appears to be a glaring hole. There seems to be a lack of ability to align the UX practices with the research done during the competitive analysis. I have browsed a number of sites with recommendations and “easy steps” to create them, but I just haven’t seen any that take the approach from a UX design perspective.
Are you considering:
-Devices & User Journeys
-Regions & Markets
-Product Lines & Brands
Now you may say to yourself, “self I do competitive analysis all the time”. If you’re going through a prescribed process with rigor and structure then great, please let me know about it. However, too many times I’ve seen this done more as an ad-hoc, unstructured process where people ‘look at what Amazon is doing’ and make their decisions based on that. I don’t want to kick dirt on that process because it is a good start and better than nothing, but I think if we just look a little more critically and apply a few steps to the work we can get even better thinking and results out of it that better represent our customer’s needs.
As I’ve had the chance to work with big name, high dollar companies that have fancy templates, the data seems to predominantly fall short when it comes to the research. Even though we repeatedly review our business model, customer journeys and personas these important areas always seem to fall down and not be represented when the findings are presented.
In all fairness, this information isn’t always readily available, but if we at least mentally plod through it as a mental exercise I know we can gain insight by putting our empathy to good work and try to understand how we can best serve the customer. In the end, this is what takes your organization to the next level. By not settling for what’s readily available by just browsing, you are already setting yourself apart from the run of the mill practitioners and agencies.
Let’s dive in then and think about the different methodologies, process and tools we use for UX and how we can apply those to competitive analysis.
Devices & User Journeys
As any good evaluation of user’s needs, we need to understand the context of use in order to design a solution. Part of this is understanding our customers journey through our entire system as well as through the features we’re trying to refine or design. In this day and age, we surely all understand that users rarely have an experience completely on a single device. Many times, users start out on a mobile device, move to a tablet, dive deeper into their exploration on a desktop and then possibly back to other devices for final action or purchase.
This tells me that any true evaluation of our competition must also follow those same principles. We need to explore the experiences on mobile, tablet, laptop and desktop and see how the experiences differ and what the transitions may be like.
It’s not uncommon in today’s world of responsive and adaptive designs to have an experience that differs according to the device. This is always something I push for as a designer, that we don’t simply make our buttons wider and allow more text when moving from mobile to larger devices. One of the main purposes behind the mobile first thinking is to distill down what the essence of the feature would be, and then as space allows, improve the experience.
We need to understand what the hand-off might be and try to reduce the cognitive load or barriers that would prohibit people from moving from device to device. If we check for these opportunities in our competition it will help us see what is and isn’t there, and put ourselves in the shoes of someone going through that process so we can better see and feel what the experience should be like.
Having your user journey maps readily available can help you think through the journey you’re evaluating, and compare not just that feature, but the points pre and post, to see how you can make better entry, and exit into that feature.
I’m a big fan of the Heath brothers, and in their book The Power of Moments, and they talk about ending on a peak or high note. While reviewing your journey, you can see if this is a good spot for creating one of those moments. In order to create something that stands out, you must provide an experience that reaches beyond the norm or of what people expect. If you look at your competition through this lens, then it will help you think about how you can exceed the norm and truly design something that will delight the user.
If the exploration of devices leads us down the customer journey path and the devices at each touchpoint, likewise we need to explore the various personas associated with any feature. Just as we’d take into account the needs and requirements for various users when designing we need to have our exploration of competitive analysis keep those same personas in mind.
Simply presenting a review of an experience or design from one dimension doesn’t give us an adequate representation of what we’re competing against. Providing the search results experience or any other feature we’re comparing is the same for all users, and defeats the purpose of all the work we put into creating personas.
Surely, we can see how search results could be different for a casual customer vs a repeat customer. The experience should be different for non-authenticated user’s vs logged in members. In this day of social media surely the needs of a customer who’s simply browsing for their own consumption vs someone who is a brand affiliate and wants to share product imagery, description, FAQ’s and a myriad of other information would want a different experience a set of tools available for them on a search results page.
For these reasons whenever we look at the competition, we need to evaluate how our different personas experience their site and how should they be experiencing ours? What are the tools and information that each of our personas need and are we or our competition currently meeting or exceeding those needs?
Regions & Markets
For an enterprise this is another important factor to take into consideration; the competition and market leaders may differ from region to region. Amazon may be one of the sites you look at, but is that the leading e-commerce platform in Asia or Europe? This is especially true for more boutique type product lines. There are generally more niche players that vary from market to market.
It’s probably helpful to have a matrix of the competition for each of the markets your company sells in. This may necessitate that you use different research agencies if you’re outsourcing these type of research activities, but you can’t make the error of thinking that the research that’s done for one market will suffice for all others. This is pretty much table stakes for any global organization but it bears repeating as I’ve had research done that only takes one region into account.
Again, I can understand why it’s difficult for a small company, researchers or agency to have the touch points and insight into all markets. Having UX resources in various global offices can help provide this information.
If you don’t have those resources in place there are some tools that can help with this type of research. Take for instance Buzzsumo, great name, right? Buzzsumo allows you to see top performing content around the globe.
Product Lines & Brands
Another aspect is to organize these competitors along your product or brand lines. Often times there are multiple dimensions that you may be competing in and various competitors may align in one dimension and not another.
You may have competitors that compete with you along brand lines and others along experience lines. You may have competitors that are direct competitors in your industry while others are more indirect. With the explosion of the gig economy it may be competitors that align with your same business opportunity.
This is another level of intricacy, but I’ve rarely found a company that has the same business and content strategy for all their product or brand lines. This will be something you’ll want to work on with the marketing or sales team, but it will be helpful to align with these teams to know what are better understand the efforts currently being put into each of these?
Additionally, it may be helpful to evaluate where we and our competitors are in a product lifecycle. A company with a product in the introduction and growth stage may have features and experiences that are completely different from that same product when it’s in a more mature state or even in decline. The number of features, and level of experience can all vary depending on where that product is in the lifecycle. Ask yourself if the feature on your competitors’ site is in that introductory or growth state, and what the opportunities or exclusions you’re going to make with your products in that same phase?
Possibly you’re in the growth phase of your product while others are in the maturity phase and you want your feature set and experience to be different. Many companies are great at this, as they don’t want to bring their best feature set to the game at the beginning of a product lifecycle. They wait for others to take that first step into the pasture and see what prairie Frisbees they step in. They learn from others mistakes and improve on them. Apple is a great example of this. They aren’t always the first to market, but they’ve built a reputation for seeing the pitfalls and coming to market with a better experience.
This brings to mind a few ideas that can converge. One of Lean UX and one from one of my favorite speakers Simon Sinek and his talk on Start with Why where he talks about the Law of Diffusion of Innovation.
With the proliferation of companies employing agile methodologies and we may not know if a certain competitor feature is a simple MVP with the major features coming in future sprints. Also with concepts like Lean UX from Jeff Gothelf are we sure that we’re not seeing the competitors skateboard or scooter version of a feature? Without taking these into account we don’t know where our competition may be with their development cycle. Any insights we may be able to glean or think about in advance can help us when applying this same thinking to our own design and development processes.
Moving on to Simon, he makes the point about “People don’t buy WHAT you do; they buy WHY you do it”. If you haven’t heard this talk go listen to it, it’s a great one. In there he talks about the Law of Diffusion of Innovation that explains how, why and at what rate new ideas and technology spread.
This is important because of the need for UX designers, researchers and strategists all to realize the reason why they are doing work, which is to help the company meet the customer needs. If we’re not in a partnership and trying to understand how to solve the problem behind the problem for the business, then we’re not helping the company succeed. I’d much rather designers focus on adding customer value this way than being seen as the people who ‘make it look pretty’.
So yes, this is making things very complicated but if we’re not seeking to understand the whole business case, can we really fully help the business to the full potential?
I give credit to this next point to my colleague and buddy, Phil Burgess, who is a UX Research wizard and always reminds me of this when we’re doing competitive analysis.
“How do you know feature x is working for customer y? “
You don’t know if you’re viewing part of an A/B test or if what you’re seeing is working for your competitors. That may be a sore spot for the company, but they’ve never had the time to fix it.
A good illustration of this is how often we hear, “well Amazon is doing it”. Yes, Amazon has a bazillion dollars and is doing a lot right, but according to many evaluations they may not only be the leader in that area, but their solution is only acceptable as shown here in the Baymard evaluation of Amazon’s search functionality.
This brings up NNg’s 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design. We can’t simply take competitors sites for face value, we have to look at them objectively and say yes, they may be one of the largest companies in the world, but is that right for us? Is this company following standards and good practices for this feature? Are our customers Amazon’s customers or Apple’s customers? If they are then great, you can employ Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience, “Users spend most of their time on other sites”. You can then use this as a standard for your site, but if they are not the same demographic then maybe they’re not the perfect yard stick to be measuring by. All of this needs to be taken into consideration as we’re evaluating the competitive analysis data.
To wrap everything up like a hog-tied beast, make sure that when your producing a competitive analysis or receiving one from your UX research team or an agency that you don’t forget all the great UX processes and methodologies you’ve amassed, and don’t forget to use them in your analysis.
Are you considering:
-Devices & User Journeys
-Regions & Markets
-Product Lines & Brands