Chapter 4. Conducting Competitive Research

You were right. I was on the wrong track.

We’re deep in the valley, how deep in the gulley.

And now in the canyon. Out in the yonder.


NOW THAT YOU HAVE A STRONG POSITIVE SIGNAL THAT YOU’RE ONTO something, you need to ask, “Why hasn’t this solution been built yet?” I hesitate to say that everything has been done, but pretty much everything has been attempted. It’s because individuals and companies have been designing products for distribution and consumption on the Internet for more than 20 years! Knowing what has actually worked or failed is crucial to identifying a competitive advantage. So, in this chapter and the next, we will look more deeply into Tenet 1, Business Strategy (Figure 4-1).

Tenet 1: Business Strategy
Figure 4-1. Tenet 1: Business Strategy

Learning Lessons, the Hard Way

Doing solid investigative market research is like peeling an onion. The more layers you peel, the more you reveal. And it also might bring tears to your eyes if you discover that your product vision is not actually unique. But don’t you want to know what it will take to beat the competition sooner rather than later? If you don’t know what you don’t know, you are at risk of learning the hard way.

Take, for instance, my dear father. In 1976, at the age of 38, he got up the courage to quit his full-time job as the area management supervisor for a popular California restaurant chain. He’d been working for others since he graduated from UCLA with an accounting degree and was eager to be an entrepreneur. His good friend did well for himself by opening several hot dog stands in the Los Angeles area. So, my father was confident that his own management experience would bring him success.

He soon found a hot dog stand for sale next to a carwash in North Hollywood. He watched the operation briefly and saw how very few customers came to the stand even while their cars were being washed. The place was run down, and the owner appeared indifferent to his customers. My father saw an opportunity for turning the stand into a profitable business and bought it immediately.

Figure 4-2 shows how he gave everything a fresh coat of paint, updated the menu, and put up a big sign that said the stand was under “new management.”

Polaroid of Alan Levy in front of his hot dog stand in 1978
Figure 4-2. Polaroid of Alan Levy in front of his hot dog stand in 1978

On opening day, though, he sold fewer than 10 hot dogs. Worse, cockroaches crept across the serving counter, and my dad kept trying to squash them before customers walked up. At the time, my brother and I (then 10 and 12) would hang out at the stand on the weekends, and we could see that my dad didn’t know what to make of his new business. Eventually, he realized that in spite of all his efforts, he couldn’t turn it around. His management expertise did not translate into the emotional stamina and physical strength required to perform the daily operations of the business. So he put it up for sale.

One morning someone responded to his “Hot Dog Stand For Sale” ad. The man showed up to the stand at noon and introduced himself. He bought a hot dog and then sat down at a table to observe the entire lunch shift. In the first hour, an elderly woman who lived at the nearby senior-citizen home walked up and bought a hot dog. After one bite, she asked for her money back. She said, “It didn’t taste right.”

The man came back the next day and watched another lunch shift. Before he left, my father asked him what he thought of the business.

“To be honest, Alan,” the man replied with a heavy Armenian accent, “You are married to a corpse.”

That comment depressed my father for days. He decided to accept his fate and sold the stand at a significant loss, which was truly tough for my family. But the whole experience taught my father (and us kids) lessons that were huge.

Using the Competitive Analysis Matrix Tool

You and your team might think you are creating a new marketplace with your product, but how can you be sure? Chances are you actually are entering an existing market. Therefore, you want to study how all the current digital solutions address the needs of your target customers.

To be competitive, you need to know what’s out there, what has worked, and what has not worked. That’s why conducting market research on the competition is a crucial component of business strategy. You want firsthand knowledge of the good and bad user experiences provided by your competitors. If done thoroughly, the research can provide a treasure trove of insight into current trends and outdated manifestations of mental models. It will also help your team learn about the competitors, their best practices for design, and what types of customer segments use their products. To connect the dots, though, you first need to collect them.

I have found the most efficient way to do a comprehensive competitive analysis is to collect all of the data in a matrix. It’s the most obvious way to do a cross-comparison, and by using a spreadsheet, I can methodically collect data and not miss anything while I’m surfing around to research. The matrix helps keep track of everything that needs to be compared. When it’s complete, I can rationalize my position with a cogent understanding of numerous qualitative and quantitative data points.

I use Google spreadsheets instead of Excel because I prefer a free cloud-based tool that is easily accessible to as many people—teammates and stakeholders—as possible. It’s important that everyone has access to the most up-to-date research, and this way I avoid blank stares during important discussions.

Figure 4-3 depicts an example of a spreadsheet that I created using Google documents specifically for conducting competitive research. I am going to use the research that I conducted on the Busy Man’s Shopping Site for explanation and sample data. (As I first mentioned in the Preface, I’ve included a toolkit with this book. It’s for you to use with your teams. Refer to it for details on accessing the Competitive Analysis Matrix.)

Competitive market research spreadsheet example
Figure 4-3. Competitive market research spreadsheet example

Your ultimate goal is to devise a solution that creates a competitive advantage. The market research your team does in the tool will force everyone to look across the competitive landscape with an eye for gaps or inconsistencies in how the competitors deliver their user experiences. The devil is in the details, and it’s in those details that Tenet 2, Value Innovation, can happen. (See Chapter 6 for more on this.)

When solid research is the input, solid analysis can be the output. This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many quick decisions are made after only a cursory examination of the marketplace. As strategists, we need to help our clients filter the market research into bite-size, actionable takeaways in which everyone can make smart, analytical decisions. Let me break it down slowly. At the end of this adventure, you will see that knowledge truly is power.

Understanding the Meaning of Competition

Let’s begin with some basics about conducting market research to analyze the competition. First let’s agree on the boundaries of the market. Take an index finger and draw a big circle in the air in front of you. Now, imagine that inside the circle is anybody on this planet who has regular (or consistent) access to the Internet. Anybody outside of the circle is everyone else. Let’s get rid of them and focus on the people inside the circle.

As digital product makers, the marketplace you all serve and dominate is the Internet. It’s not only your marketplace; it’s your distribution medium. You and your team create for, deliver products to, interact with, and acquire more users than any other medium through this digital highway. This is why the Internet is far more powerful than traditional mediums like television and radio.

Another special thing about your marketplace is that it contains all of your existing and future customers. They can be either paying or nonpaying customers. They can be of almost any age range, so long as they can interact or engage with the product digitally. If a company in this space offers a product that is similar or even similar-ish to yours, they are your competitors. They have the ability to cut into your share of the potential two-plus billion people in the market.

However, not all of these two-plus billion people are necessarily your customers. (If you think they are, please reread Chapter 3, right now.) If you realize this from the start, it will be easier to pinpoint your competition.

Types of Competitors

A competitor is a person, team, or company that shares your goals and is fighting for the same thing that your product team wants. If you are entering a new market, there might be no true “direct competitors.” Still, the chances are that the market for your product already exists, and you just might not know about it yet.

Direct competitors are companies that offer the same, or very similar, value proposition to your current or future customers. This means that the customers you want are alive right now and spending their time and money on the Internet using a direct competitor’s product instead of yours to solve their problem—whether it is the best interface or not!

In my research for Paul the movie producer from Chapter 3, I found that the biggest direct competitor was a site called Trunk Club, shown in Figure 4-4.

Direct competitor’s website: Trunk Club
Figure 4-4. Direct competitor’s website: Trunk Club

Trunk Club is a great solution for Paul the movie producer’s intended customer segment because Trunk Club addresses his hypothesized users’ problems. For example, the Busy Man doesn’t want to deal with annoying sales people. If the Busy Man joins the VIP-ish sounding “Club,” he also gets high-end clothing sent to him to try on in the privacy of his own home. That seems to hit all the points Paul brought up in Chapter 3, doesn’t it? That’s why Trunk Club is a direct competitor.

Indirect competitors offer a similar value proposition to a different customer segment; or, they target your exact customer base without offering the exact same value proposition. For instance, an indirect competitor’s primary service might not be your value proposition, but their secondary service definitely is. Or, your customer base is using an aspect of an indirect competitor’s interface to solve the problem that our soon-to-be-amazing product will!

In my research for the Busy Man’s Shopping Site, I discovered that the online shopping site Gilt (see Figure 4-5) is an indirect competitor.

Indirect competitor’s website: Gilt
Figure 4-5. Indirect competitor’s website: Gilt

Gilt is an indirect competitor because it offers a partial solution to the Busy Man customer segment. With Gilt, the Busy Man could avoid annoying salespeople and get access to top brands. However, Gilt has a flash sales business model. That means that single products are only on sale for a brief period of time (perhaps just 24 hours). This makes it possible for Gilt to offer its targeted customer base deep discounts, but Paul’s intended customer base doesn’t want that at the expense of flexibility and time. Time limits and curated selections would actually prevent Paul’s intended customers from putting together the personalized wardrobe of their dreams. So, although customers of the Busy Man could solve some of their big fashion needs with Gilt, it wouldn’t be the their ideal solution.

But no matter, whether the competition is direct or indirect, the Internet is an intense marketplace. Make sure that you consider all of your competitors because they will affect the overall success of your product. The reality is that people often use products or combinations of products in ways that the product makers do not expect. (Remember what Ena discovered about hosts for wedding venues on Airbnb!) Research everything because that is how you and your team will ensure that you have an edge over others in your industry.

How to Find Your Competitors and Compile Your Competition List

There are many ways to learn who your direct and indirect competitors are. In fact, you will most likely begin to learn about competitors before you sit down to do the competitive analysis. During customer discovery or other research, users might share names of products they’re using. During stakeholder interviews, the client, investors, and other product owners will probably drop the names of products they admire and want to emulate. Or, they might mention a product that they’ve heard is similar to what your team is proposing. That’s why it’s crucial to keep track of competitor names somewhere so that you don’t forget them. Make a list somewhere in an email, word processing program, or a writing pad. Otherwise, you can jot the names down in your spreadsheet tool. Just track that list somewhere because you are going to need it very soon.

Of course, you could also stumble on a few products by surfing the current marketplace on the Internet. There are hundreds of web research tools for doing effective market research. Google, obviously, is the most popular search engine for doing generalized research. The advanced search filters are very powerful. However, it doesn’t hurt to use Yahoo!, which is powered by Microsoft’s Bing, to compare result sets. I will dig into this method more deeply now by demonstrating how to build a competitor list for the Busy Man’s Shopping Site.

Searching for competitors

First, you look for direct competitors—products that compete head-to-head with your value proposition. Paul the movie producer’s vision was of a platform for the busy, wealthy, and particular guy who wants to buy high-end products. Therefore, you need to figure out keywords the Busy Man might use to search for similar products. In this scenario, it might be a good idea to reverse engineer—how would Paul’s customers search for a product? Here are some possible examples:

  • Men’s ecommerce site

  • Men’s shopping site

  • Top brands

  • Wardrobe online

  • Personal stylist

Ideally, you want to be as quick and precise as possible when scanning your results. What sets a professional web researcher apart from an amateur is how fast he is able to determine if the product matches your criteria. A good search result will often yield more than potential competitor websites on the search page, too. It will lead you to niche media platforms like blogs in which you can find “Top 10” or “Best of” articles from experts. These pieces of media are another great jumping-off point to find competitors. Other tactics include using Crunchbase, which collates the largest dataset of startup activity. You can also use advanced search tools such as the “more like this” button within Google AdWords, as illustrated in Figure 4-6. Clicking the button opens the window shown in Figure 4-7. It’s also a good idea to click through to the landing page of potential competitors. Read their About pages. Scan their products. Does it match your value proposition in any way? If it does, add the competitor to the list. If it doesn’t, quickly click the Back button. Then, just rinse and repeat!

This is the “more like this” keyword feature in Google Adwords. When you click the button, it displays the results shown in .
Figure 4-6. This is the “more like this” keyword feature in Google Adwords. When you click the button, it displays the results shown in Figure 4-7.
The “More like this” feature results in the most popular and relevant keywords
Figure 4-7. The “More like this” feature results in the most popular and relevant keywords

You won’t get much information about your industry if you only examine two or three competitors. Unless you really have hit a blue ocean and there are only a handful of competitors in your market, shoot for identifying the top five direct competitors and obtaining at least three indirect competitors. Otherwise, keep your list diverse with established competitors versus newer players who have recently entered the market. You want to get a panoramic view of how the new products might be more innovative to what best practices define their established competition.

Filling Out the matrix with data

Now we have a list of direct and indirect competitors, and that means we can start gathering the rest of our data. Go ahead and open the Competitive Analysis Matrix from the UX Strategy Toolkit if your computer is handy.[32] As Figure 4-8 illustrates, I’ve provided a blank template for you to use. Plunk your competitor list into the leftmost column of the Y-axis.

Competitive Analysis Matrix template
Figure 4-8. Competitive Analysis Matrix template

Separate the direct competitors from the indirect competitors. Include the website address or app store, too, as demonstrated in Figure 4-9 (for example, Google Play versus Apple Store). This is reference for your team and you. It will make it easier for you to double-check data and verify facts. The list will eventually need to be reorganized; I go over how to do that in Chapter 5, after you gather your research and are ready for the analysis. For the time being, I want to just focus on correctly capturing your research.

Lists of competitors going down Y-axis
Figure 4-9. Lists of competitors going down Y-axis

Okay, now take a deep breath, because we are about to jump into the labor-intensive process of conducting research and capturing results. Pace yourself so that you can capture data as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Try to also keep an open mind because the only bias you should have is whether or not the product is actually a competitor.

However, research can be time-consuming, so when you go down the rabbit hole, be sure to come up for air. For your first pass, spend up to an hour filling out as many cells as possible in each row. Set a timer for 30 minutes to give yourself a reality check at the halfway point. Less is more! Keep your documented research brief and to the point. This way, if you or anybody needs to refer back to the spreadsheet, it won’t require scanning excess or unrelated information.

If you look at our cloud example, you’ll see how rows represent competitors, whereas columns represent competitor attributes (see Figure 4-10). The rightmost column is the analysis column, which you can ignore for now until Chapter 5, after you collect all your research.

Horizontal (X-axis) attributes go across the columns
Figure 4-10. Horizontal (X-axis) attributes go across the columns

We’re going to attack each row, evaluating each competitor based on a range of market and UX attributes. I will explain the attributes that need to be captured in each column. Not all of the attributes are applicable or relevant to all digital products. Just skip or delete the ones that don’t apply to your product. There also might be attributes that need to be considered that are not in this spreadsheet; feel free to add anything relevant by adding a new column or replacing one that you don’t need to use. What is crucial is that the pros and cons of the UX are clearly evaluated.

URL of website or app store location

This is where you put the primary online location that customers use to access the product. For desktop-only products, it will be the website address (URL), as depicted in Figure 4-11. For multiplatform products, you can list website URLs, links to app store preview pages, and so on. You want to make the information easy for your team to reference regardless of what device everyone has. They shouldn’t all need to download an app to see how it looks. Here are sample links to the Waze app listing for Apple and Android:

If a product is a mobile app with a nonessential desktop counterpart used only for marketing or support (such as Tinder’s website,, it’s not crucial to list both platforms.

URL/App location result sample
Figure 4-11. URL/App location result sample

If you find that the competitor’s website and mobile app are both crucial to the customer experience of the product, I recommend that you break the competitors into two separate rows, especially if they offer distinct user experiences or feature sets (for instance, the Airbnb desktop versus the leaner mobile version). This way you can evaluate each platform separately.

Usernames and password access

To beat your competitors, you need to know exactly what they are doing. You want to know the unknowns. In many cases, the only way to learn this is through your competitor’s experience and/or sales funnel by becoming a user yourself. That’s right, you want to create an account or download the app. The column shown in Figure 4-12 is where you keep track of that information.

Usernames and passwords cell data sample
Figure 4-12. Usernames and passwords cell data sample

The benefit of tracking the access information is that it saves time for you and the rest of the team. They won’t have to create and pseudo-personalize a profile, too. This is especially useful if you’re researching a two-sided market in which you need two types of accounts (for example, buyer and seller). Don’t be dumb when creating all of these new accounts, however. Be very cautious about the usernames, passwords, and the personal information you choose to share.

Here are a few pro tips:

  • Create one global username and password for use on all the products in your audit. It makes it a lot easier to remember and distribute to your team. Include a capital letter and number in your password because that criterion will be required by some of the products.

  • Don’t ever use personal information such as your kid’s birthday, your own passwords, or profanity. You will potentially share this information with clients or colleagues.

  • Do not log on (single sign-on) using your personal or professional Facebook (or any social network) account ever.

  • If you are creating profiles on social networks, do not use your personal or work email address! Instead, create secondary accounts on Gmail or Yahoo first. Then, use these fake email accounts to create fake profiles.

  • If it is a transactional website you are researching, purchase something. If it is an app that you must purchase (versus a free one), pay for it. Don’t be cheap! It’s usually only a few dollars here or there. Having one user account for your entire team to learn from is worth the financial investment.

Purpose of site

The purpose of the site is why it exists; it’s basically the high-level description of the product or the value proposition. Think about how the competitor might explain it to a user or investor. As Figure 4-13 demonstrates, your description should be one to two sentences that describe the primary customer and the solution provided by the product.

Purpose of Site result sample
Figure 4-13. Purpose of Site result sample

You can often find this information by looking in the following places:

“About” or “About Us” section

The value proposition is often written here by the competitor.


Both the “Company Overview” and “Detailed Description” section have company descriptions.

iTunes or Google Play app stores

The first two lines of the “description” are generally what you’re looking for.

Social networks such as Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube

These sometimes provide information about the value proposition.

Online annual report

All publicly traded companies must release an annual report that often has a description of the company near the beginning of the report. Simply Google the competitor’s name and “Annual Report” to find it!

Year founded

What year was this company founded or the product launched (Figure 4-14)? You should be able to find this in the same place you found the value proposition; for example, the About Us section, Crunchbase, and so on. It’s useful information to have when you do the analysis, because you can see what players (products and/or services) are new to the market and who’s been around for a while.

Year Founded result sample
Figure 4-14. Year Founded result sample

Funding rounds

A funding round is a discrete round of investment by which a business or other enterprise raises money to fund operations, expansion, capital projects, acquisitions, or some other business purpose.[33] (See Figure 4-15.) Again, the obvious places to find this information are Crunchbase and/or the competitor’s website. This information is important because competitors with funding have a competitive advantage.

Funding Rounds result sample
Figure 4-15. Funding Rounds result sample

Revenue streams

A revenue stream is how the product brings in money. As Figure 4-16 depicts, it could be via a transaction fee, advertising, monthly fees, or Software as a Service (SaaS), or by selling user data and trends to other companies. OkCupid is a dating site that’s free for users. The company makes money through premium features and advertising. Facebook uses data mining as its first revenue model, selling competitive intelligence to third parties from unsuspecting users. eBay’s success hinges completely on users being able to easily buy from and sell to one another. Adobe charges a monthly SaaS fee for its cloud-based service.

How a product is potentially monetized should be directly tied to the UX strategy because that’s what will make the product valuable to the user and the stakeholder. A successful competitor’s revenue model will probably reflect that. If you’re not sure how a certain competitor is monetizing its product, spend more time using its website. If the competitor wants to survive in the long run, it needs to eventually charge someone for something. Is there advertising on the website? Click the “Advertise with Us” link to see how it position itself. How do your competitors charge for membership? Look at their annual report if they’re available.

Revenue Streams result sample
Figure 4-16. Revenue Streams result sample

Monthly traffic

This is actually a measurable, quantifiable attribute. If you have access to Comscore, you can get super-accurate data—traffic (see Figure 4-17), minutes-on-site, and so on. about other websites. But there are also dozens of free websites that monitor monthly traffic. Usually all you need to do to get the data is type in the domain name of the site you’re researching. Check out, Quantcast, and Alexa. You can pilfer free data from these sites and many others. By looking at multiple data points, you can triangulate an average of the traffic data, which is a lot better than not having any traffic data at all. For iPhone downloads and stats, there are great sites such as App Annie, AppFigures, Mopapp, and Distimo.

Monthly Traffic result sample
Figure 4-17. Monthly Traffic result sample

# of SKUs/listings

This cell is optional because this information is often difficult to ascertain. Here, you will track how many items or listings are available for the product. In the case of an ecommerce site like Zappos, you’ll track SKUs (stock keeping units, see Figure 4-18). Each SKU represents one item for sale on the site. For example, on Zappos I can currently see that there are more than 13,828 men’s shoes (SKUs) for sale by simply clicking the link for the top level of the men’s shoes category. You could use this as a point of comparison to other sites selling in that category. In the case of a video-sharing or content-producing site, you’ll want track how many videos/articles are actually on the site. In the case of a transactional product/platform, you’ll want to know how much stuff is in there, even if it’s a rough estimate based on a few search queries.

The problem with this attribute is that there’s no magic button that you can click to give you this information. In many cases, there are design conventions such as “infinite scroll” that prevent you from easily knowing how many more results could be displayed. Try searching for a common word that would apply to a lot of listings. For a clothing site, you could try a word like “shoe” or “shirt.” The goal is for you to have data to compare. For example, what is the total result of one product—watches, for example—across multiple competitor products? You want to establish how empty or full the competitor’s site is. Is it actually offering what it’s promising to the user?

If it’s a social networking platform, try to determine how often and how many users are interacting with one another. You might get different results with a variety of word combinations. We are looking for something to estimate against, and you can change the title of the column so it more accurately reflects the substance of your data.

SKUs/Listings result sample
Figure 4-18. SKUs/Listings result sample

Primary categories

If the site is selling products (like or offering content (like, you need to understand how everything is categorized. The site probably (hopefully) already does this, so check out the site’s global navigation menu. If the category list is small (women’s, men’s, kids’, and so on), you can just copy that into your spreadsheet, as illustrated in Figure 4-19. If the list is long or complex, as on Amazon or eBay, the site is probably a horizontal marketplace. A horizontal market tries to meet the needs of a wide range of customers by offering products or services across many sectors. If you’re studying a horizontal marketplace, try to ascertain what the most active categories are. Look at what’s featured on the home page. What does the site promote as “most popular” or “best selling”? In either case, just include the categories that correlate to the products on the site. Don’t include noncontent/product categories such as “About us” or the Help section.

Primary Categories result sample
Figure 4-19. Primary Categories result sample

Social networks

Is the competitor’s brand also on Twitter, Facebook, or others? Which social platforms is it truly using? Most products these days integrate with these platforms, but they don’t fully leverage anything with all of them. Figure 4-20 shows that you need to determine what social media strategy each competitor is trying to harness well. You can find most of this information by simply searching the product’s name on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and any other popular relevant social platform, or by just checking out the competitors’ sites.

Social Networks result sample
Figure 4-20. Social Networks result sample

Content types

Use this to capture what type of content is on the competitor’s site, as depicted in Figure 4-21. Is the bulk of the content text, photos, or video? How much content dominates the site and how is it presented? Is the content well organized? Is it easy to scan and/or read? How detailed and informative is the information displayed on the product detail pages?

Content Types result sample
Figure 4-21. Content Types result sample

Personalization features

Personalization, shown in Figure 4-22, is one of the most crucial features to get customers engaged with an application or website. It should provide a value-added experience. On Airbnb, Amazon, or eBay, you don’t need to be logged on to perform a basic search. However, you will need to log on as soon as you want to take an action (for example, save to favorites or make a purchase). The more time people spend personalizing their experience, the more engaged they will get with the product. (Think: Facebook!) Personalization features include favoriting, watch lists, user profiles, wish lists, custom content experiences, custom interface experiences, messaging, saved shopping carts, and so on. Sign up for the competitor’s newsletters, too.

Another way to check out the personalization features is to go to the “My Account” section of each competitor. See what the site or app allows you to do that’s particularly useful and helps achieve the value proposition. How can customers customize their experience? Is the experience sticky—meaning so engaging that the user will really want to “stick” to this product? Does it display the user’s name? Does it remember and display the last item the user looked at? Does it let the user make a list of favorite items? As you look at all of the competitors, it will soon become obvious which personalization features are crucial and which are not.

Personalization Features result sample
Figure 4-22. Personalization Features result sample

Community/UGC features

User-generated content (UGC) or crowd-sourced content is content that is created by the users. Some products such as Yelp, Waze, eBay, and Airbnb would be useless without user-generated content. In contrast, brands like Levis and ABC have mostly editorial content. Editorial content is created by people who work for or associate professionally with the site. In this column, you want to estimate the amount of user-generated content versus the amount of editorial content, as illustrated in Figure 4-23. You want to get a sense of where most of the content is coming from.

Look for features like message boards, the ability to post content (reviews, stories, and so on), and user comments. Be specific about which features are crucial and try to cite concrete examples of how they bring value to the product’s other customers.

Community/UGC Features result sample
Figure 4-23. Community/UGC Features result sample

Competitive advantage

Think different! Differentiators are distinct features that a product provides that are not found in its competitors. They give a product a competitive advantage, such as those depicted in Figure 4-24. They can be a combination of attributes that make the product better. Some attributes might be specific to the online experience and others to the offline experience.

For instance, Zappos made a name for itself by providing an amazing customer experience. It is known for having a great browsing experience as well as simplifying product returns. Vine’s initial differentiator was how easy it was to record a video by touching anywhere on the screen. What makes it different now is that it’s a massive social network owned by Twitter. Kayak had the ability to filter live search results long before Priceline did. Kayak made the experience even better by providing the simplest of interactive patterns—a slider—to make this live filtering fun.

Figure out the top three differentiators of each product and list them in this cell. Ask yourself questions such as which features were successful because the product was first-to-market? Can those features be easily replicated? Which is better, the filtering or the large database of options? Which attributes are specific to the online experience?

Competitive Advantage result sample
Figure 4-24. Competitive Advantage result sample

Heuristic evaluation

Heuristic is a fancy word that means experimentation and trial-by-error. In other words, get firsthand experience using the product to see how it works for you, personally. What do you think?

You basically want to quickly evaluate whether the site is usable. You probably don’t have time for anything exhaustive, so just do a quick evaluation, such as that shown in Figure 4-25, and give the product an overall grade of “A” to “F.” You can use the following questions as a guide:

  • Does the experience allow the user to easily accomplish her primary goal? Is it intuitive?

  • Are the navigation, page/screen layouts, and visual design consistent?

  • Is it easy to find, search, and browse the content or services being offered?

  • Is the user feedback (for instance, error messaging) satisfactory? Is there a live help or a support system in place?

Heuristic Evaluation result sample
Figure 4-25. Heuristic Evaluation result sample

Customer reviews

This is a summary of the amount (that is, hundreds or thousands) of customer reviews that you can find on a product outside of its website. For mobile apps, you can find these in the app stores where you download the product. For websites, you can sometimes find these on Quora or other similar message-board platforms where users reach out to the general public for troubleshooting advice. You are looking for the latest recurring customer complaints about a product because those potential pain points are something your team might be able improve upon.

General/miscellaneous notes

This is miscellaneous information that doesn’t fit into the other columns. You can use this for any research relevant to your product that you want to track. Feel free to change the name of this column if needed.

Questions/notes to team or self

Remember this is a collaborative document. Other people will be reading your research as you fill it out and could provide valuable information. Thus, you might put things in here such as, “This site doesn’t work on Chrome not sure if it’s me.” “Hey Steve, do you think you can expense a pair of shoes on this site so we can see how the entire transaction works?”

Sometimes, you will have a miscellaneous note that you want to remember. You can also use this column as a parking lot for attributes that need to be examined across all sites.


You get to skip this for now until you finish up all the other competitors. Chapter 5 covers how to do the analysis section.

One last note: often product teams and stakeholders don’t keep an eye on the market after they’ve moved on from the research process. However, this is a mistake because the Internet is a fast-moving target. Things change really fast. The competitive landscape is always shifting; consequently, competitive research will never be final. One competitor might tank but two others will pop up. It’s like playing whack-a-mole. For instance, I did the competitive research for the Busy Man Shopping Site in 2012. I’m sure if you look at the landscape now, it’s very different. That’s why you and your team always need to be on your toes, agile, and ready to grab your competitor’s newest ideas and immediately see how they might affect your product vision.


To build something unique, you cannot ignore your competition. In this chapter, I discussed how to conduct competitive research to learn about the marketplace. You learned how to identify direct and indirect competitors. You relentlessly searched the Web, capturing a range of qualitative and quantitative data points to help understand what kind of marketplace your product might be entering. Now, it’s time to analyze that grid and extract meaningful intelligence that will inform the UX. That might sound complicated, but don’t panic. Just move on to Chapter 5.

Get UX Strategy now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience books, live events, courses curated by job role, and more from O’Reilly and nearly 200 top publishers.