The Paralyzing Effect of Competitive Research.

Why you should stop worrying about what everyone else is doing.

Cindy Beyer
October 26, 2015

Competitive analysis is an important starting point in order to identify industry standards and user expectations in product development, but relying on it too much can be dangerous. What are the disadvantages when you cross that threshold? And most importantly, what are you missing when you place too much emphasis on what the other guys are doing? It could be a great distraction from discovering what your users really want. 

So when a client asks us, “How does X do it?” we say, “Who cares?” Here’s why: 

At best, you’ll only reach parity.

In the early phases of product design, it makes sense to survey the landscape and identify products that address problems similar to the ones your users are facing. And it can be tempting, after a survey of products that are out there, to develop an exhaustive backlog of must-have features for your product and to set out designing a slicker version of the status quo. This approach might get you to parity—might get you to nail the table stakes—but it will never help you become a leader in your field. 

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We don’t suggest you ignore the competition altogether. Instead, think about the competition as a tool to better understand your users. Talk to them. Let them walk you through if, when, why, and how they use your competitor’s product. Note their pain points and consider a better way. Pay close attention to what they love and focus on making your solution even better. Ask them about the other products they love and use on a daily basis and make yourself familiar with how they interact digitally. 

Armed with a deeper appreciation of your user’s needs and the interaction patterns they are familiar with, you can make decisions about what to adopt and identify the opportunities to differentiate yourself with a better user experience. You want to create a solution that is innovative enough to inspire, yet simple enough that users can instantly understand and interact with it. 

It’s a weak argument for organizational change.

Going against convention or challenging the way your organization has always done things can be scary. And the stakes only get higher when you need to convince your stakeholders it’s the right thing to do. All too often, we turn to competitive research from a place of fear and insecurity, hoping to justify change and validate assumptions with an “everyone else is doing it” argument. 

Let’s say for example that your client is a financial institution that is redesigning the navigation structure for their website. Because the ownership of the site’s content is often dispersed across several organizational silos, the order, content, and even labeling of the navigation can become a disastrous political debate. While looking to competitors for cues may help settle internal debates, it could also show you their dysfunctional organizational structures, too—and it tells you nothing about what your users expect to find where. Your users do not care about your organizational dysfunction if it gets in the way of what they are trying to accomplish. 

Throughout the product design process, we should be focused on learning about users. Not on settling debates and justifying decisions. 

To illustrate another example, you might find when working with a utility client that asking for a credit check worked just fine in a time when most orders were submitted face-to-face or over the phone. But these steps can create friction when designing a digital purchase path. Though most users are comfortable purchasing online, many balk when asked to submit sensitive information like social security numbers. By turning to the competition to find someone who has omitted this key checkpoint, you embark on an uphill battle with an argument that falls short with stakeholders. 

A better approach in this case is to look inward and work with your stakeholders to understand the details and rationale driving the existing policies. Knowing how often users are denied because a credit check fails versus how many customers drop out of the purchase path when faced with the daunting question will provide you with the right information you need to make decisions. 

It’s not solving the problems that really matter.

“Do what everyone else is doing” is most damaging when it stands at the end of a problem-solving chain. It is the easiest—and even laziest—way to solve any given business or user problem, but it is our job to help our clients go back up the chain to identify that right problem and then find the solution that is uniquely right to them. This is where true innovation happens. 

Think of a business owner wrestling with the question of whether to allow their customers the ability to cancel their account online. This can be terrifying if you focus on whether it will result in an increase in cancellations. When acting out of fear and panic, the instinct is often to ask, “Do our competitors do it?” With fingers crossed, they poke around competitors’ sites hoping to find an excuse not to offer that feature. If no one else is doing it, it must not be a good idea. 

Approaching the question this way is short-sighted. The real questions to ask are, “What are the reasons for why our customers choose to cancel their account?” and “What should we be doing to change that?” 

You don’t need to be afraid.

Relax. As digital product managers, we are fortunate to work with more fluid and cost-efficient technologies than the brick and mortar tools of our predecessors. Iterative product development allows us to test and learn from our users on an ongoing basis so we can become smarter with every feature launched. 

When you focus on the things that matter to users, and let that be your guiding light throughout, “what the other guys are doing” will likely shift to your competitors emulating you.

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