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Approach Competitive Analysis Like a User Researcher (with Template)

Marketing, sales, and product teams all have unique approaches to competitive analysis. UXR has a special viewpoint to share.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Nicky Mazur

There can be a bit of eye-rolling when talking about competitive analysis within the user research field. Often, it feels like an outdated method and gets stuck on our plate because no one else feels like doing it.

I did my first competitive analysis nearly a decade ago. I used the SWOT model, where I looked at the strengths and weaknesses of the competitor, opportunities for us, and how we threaten that competitor. Below is a screenshot of part of the analysis (feel free to laugh at young UXR Nikki's work!):

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When competitive analysis isn’t working

At first, I only knew about the SWOT model when conducting competitive analysis. However, as the years went by, I came across different and more in-depth ways to analyze and compare to competitors.

My next stab at it looked at information like:

  • Value proposition
  • Target audience
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Features
  • Rating (in the app store)

This analysis covered more areas and concepts, but still didn't feel beneficial.

Whenever I presented a competitive analysis, whether the SWOT or the more in-depth approach, people glanced at it and didn't seem to care. It didn't spur action or get anyone excited. As a result, there wasn't any big revelation or understanding.

At that moment, I decided to lean into the suckiness I had encountered as competitive analysis and brainstorm a different approach. I wanted to conduct the best freaking competitive analysis the world had ever seen.

And as a user researcher, it was a dull task. I pulled together information into a spreadsheet and then went on my way. There wasn't any value associated with competitive analysis, and there were better ways I wanted to spend my time.

So, for years, I avoided them, saying they were useless and that there were 50 more useful (and exciting) things I could be doing with my time.

And then, I was tasked with conducting a competitive analysis at an organization I had just started working for. Could I convince my boss, about a month into the job, that competitive analyses were stupid, in my humble opinion? Did I want to come off as someone shirking responsibilities?

No, I didn't. At that moment, I decided to lean into the suckiness I had encountered as competitive analysis and brainstorm a different approach. I wanted to conduct the best freaking competitive analysis the world had ever seen.

While I didn't get the world record for the world's best competitive analysis (although maybe that needs to be a category), I reframed my approach to finding a way to make this exercise useful and valuable.

Now I recommend doing competitive research and analyzing the competition, just not in the way I initially learned.

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First, what is competitive analysis?

Quite a few definitions are floating around out there concerning competitive analysis.

For many, competitive analysis is researching competitors to learn more about their strengths, weaknesses, products, and marketing strategies.

With that definition, it's no wonder I went to the SWOT analysis and then only evolved slightly from there. This definition focuses a lot on creating an understanding of your competitor from an objective marketing point of view. It’s largely based on secondary research.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with the conventional competitive analysis approach, there is space for it to evolve. There is a time and place for SWOT analysis and traditional competitive analysis. Without it, how would we understand the market?

However, I wanted to view competitive analysis from the lens of user research. The original definition doesn't account for user research, so I decided to take a spin on competitive analysis to give it a new description that’s more applicable to using it in that context.

For user research, competitive analysis is looking deeply into competitors' user experiences and identifying ways your product can better serve users with their needs, goals, and pain points.

Within this definition, we shift away from general strengths and weaknesses and move toward a more user-centric analysis.

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What does a UXR competitive analysis include?

With this new approach, I knew that I had to overhaul my old spreadsheet and SWOT analysis template. I also knew I was going to have to do more work to create a competitive analysis that was more holistic and user-centric.

I identified a process I could use within my competitive analysis to highlight a competitor's UX. I came up with the following:

✔ Generative research (or gathering insights)

If you don't know your product's users, and their needs, goals, and pain points, it will be tough to identify meaningful competitors and whether those competitors help their customers. Generative research helps you achieve that.

✔ Heuristic evaluation

A heuristic evaluation is excellent for identifying glaring issues in an experience or flow. This evaluation gives you an overall review of your (or your competitor's) product, website, or app. With this method, you’re looking for experience gaps—and judging your (or your competitor's) product/website/app against common usability heuristics.

✔ Usability testing

What better to understand usability than by conducting usability tests? This step was a no-brainer for me. Usability testing your competitor's products can give you a holistic look into their experiences.

With this in mind, I conducted my first user research-focused competitive analysis. It was a world of difference. I enjoyed it so much more, and my audience's reaction was much more engaged.

We took action from that competitive analysis, and I decided to use that approach in all future projects.

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How to conduct a user research-focused competitive analysis

Now that we've identified different components in a competitive analysis, it's time to conduct the study and put everything together. Here are the steps I take when conducting a competitive analysis.

✔ Define your goals

It’s essential that you’re clear on your goals for the competitive analysis. This step ensures you include the correct approaches to get the information you need, and answer whatever questions you have within the scope of your study.

For example, the goals I generally cover in a competitive analysis are:

  • Understand how effective the competitor is in addressing users' needs, goals, and pain points
  • Uncover usability issues within the competitor's product
  • Evaluate how those usability issues compare to our product
  • Identify opportunities for improvement and innovation within our product

At the end of the competitive analysis, I aim to have an overview of our product and each competitor to see where we can make positive improvements and innovations.

✔ Choose your competitors

A competitor is a person, team, or company that shares your goals, mission, and vision. If you’re entering a new market, there might be no actual "direct competitors." However, a company is likely doing something similar to what you are thinking.

Think deeply about this, as the answer might be more obvious than you think. For example, an online tax company realized that other online tax companies weren't their biggest competitors; instead, the pencil was.

There are two types of competitors:

  1. Direct competitors offer your current or future customers the same or similar product/service. They’re trying to get the attention of the exact audience you are. Likely, customers use the direct competitor's product to solve similar problems to what your product/service aims to solve.
  2. Indirect competitors offer a similar product/service to a different customer segment or a different product/service to the same customers. It’s also possible that your customers are using an aspect of an indirect competitor's interface product to solve a problem.

When picking competitors, you can choose as many as you want. However, keep in mind that you will go in-depth into each, so I recommend picking two or three direct competitors and up to two indirect ones. Of course, you can always add more later.

✔ Audit what you already have

Since it’s critical to ensure you have a deep understanding of your users, start by auditing the research you already have.

Have you done generative research? Do you know your user's pain points, needs, and goals? Have you already done usability testing on your overall product recently? Or even on your competitors' products?

If you have already done all the research (recently), then you can skip to step five! If not, you need to move forward with recruitment and testing!

✔ Recruit for the tests you need and conduct the research

Based on the information above, you’ll need to recruit for the information you need. If you have never done generative research to understand your user base, that’s the best place to start. You first need to gather this foundational information to assess how your competitors stack up to you properly.

When it comes to usability testing, ideally you can test your product and the competitors’ as they currently are. This approach gives you the best comparison point.

You might have to conduct internal testing with your colleagues if you can’t speak to and test with competitors' users. However, always try to test with users for the most accurate information.

✔ Conduct a heuristic evaluation

While you recruit (or if you don't need to do research), conduct a heuristic evaluation of your product and the competitors' products.

The beauty of heuristic evaluations is that they can indicate how your company’s and your competitors' user experiences are stacking up against these important heuristics. Even better, you don't need users for this step, and you can already find interesting and insightful information.

✔ Put it all together and make recommendations

I struggled the most with pulling all of this information together and then making pointed recommendations on what was next. There is a lot of information in this approach to bring together, which can be quite overwhelming.

I created a template that gives you a place to store this information in a spreadsheet. From there, you can build a deck that discusses your competitors' products and experiences and what improvements you need to make to support your users better.

Grab a copy of my UXR Competitive Analysis Template with an example of how to use it.

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Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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