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Improve Your Competitive Analysis with Strategic User Research Techniques

Competitive analysis benefits many stakeholders. Here’s how to manage a competitive analysis end-to-end—with better results.

Words by Cori Widen, Visuals by Alisa Harvey

Whether you’re a product manager or a researcher, you’ve likely heard about or conducted a competitive analysis in order to understand other products or services in your market in comparison to your own.

Competitive analysis is useful for a wide range of important tasks within an organization — everything from product positioning to solidifying your unique value proposition.

Different organizations approach competitive analyses in their own unique ways, but they often include things like information about each product’s specific target audience, product feature comparisons, and top-line metrics such as revenue and monthly active users.

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Understanding the importance of user perspectives

As a user research lead, I can’t help but notice that many competitive analyses are missing what I’d consider to be a crucial component: user perspectives.

In addition to understanding how other products and services in your space position themselves and what functionality they offer, there is tremendous value in understanding how users conceptualize and interact with your main competitors. User perspectives add a lot of nuance to a company’s competitive analysis in a way that has a lot of tangible value.

For example, let’s say that your company’s product is a fitness app. Your competitive analysis will almost certainly have a list of key features and which of your competitors have what functionality: but how do you know which features are most important to users?

How can you figure out whether the existing features that your competitors boast actually meet user needs? Simply knowing that one of your main competitors has a community feature where users can share real-time info with their friends about their workouts is interesting, but it doesn’t give you enough information to help you prioritize and make real product decisions.

However, if your competitive analysis includes user research methodology, you’ll have a better understanding as to whether this serves actual user needs, and what’s ideal or not ideal about the community features that your competitors have. That information can help you prioritize your roadmap, conceptualize an MVP that has a better shot at being adopted by your users, and more.

Not only does adding user research methodology add more nuanced and actionable information to your organization’s competitive analysis, but there’s a bonus: it’s a great chance for you to work alongside product and marketing stakeholders to strengthen relationships. This will allow you to show the value of user research while working on a competitive analysis collaboratively.

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How to conduct competitive analysis with a user research component

The first step is to get the user research team involved in the competitive analysis effort, which can happen in a couple of different ways. If you learn that your marketing or product teams are getting started with competitive analysis, set a meeting or create a proposal for the user research component to make sure that all of the stakeholders are on board.

The other option, of course, is to initiate a competitive analysis. Here is a non-exhaustive list of indicators that your organization could benefit from launching one:

  • Your market share is shrinking and you need to increase your edge
  • There are a lot of recent additions to your list of competitors and you need to revisit your positioning
  • Your product team is struggling with prioritization in their roadmap
  • Your marketing team needs new ideas for messaging and value propositions

The best way to initiate a competitive analysis is to meet with stakeholders from marketing, biz dev, product—and whomever else you think is relevant to establish your goals and divvy up responsibilities.

Tip: One key element of aligning with other stakeholders is to agree on the top three to five competitors in your space. Since the user research component of the analysis will likely involve interviewing or interacting with users, you need to be able to define research subjects based on which competitors they use.

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How to execute the user research portion of your company’s competitive analysis

Once a competitive analysis has been launched and you’ve agreed on goals and timeline with the other stakeholders, good news: you’re back in your comfort zone! Your first step is to create a research plan. Like all research plans, you’ll want to include your research questions, your proposed methodology, timeline, and budget.

Create research questions for a competitive analysis

Here are some general questions that may help you create and refine good research questions when planning your competitive analysis:

  1. What are some of the challenges or frustrations that users have with our main competitors?
  2. What are some of the main aspects of our competitors’ products that users find value in?
  3. How do users conceptualize and articulate the differences, if any, between our product and between our competitors?
  4. Is there an identifiable group of users that uses more than one product in our space? If so, why?

The idea is that you’re drafting research questions that will enable you to understand how users conceptualize and experience your product—and those of your competitors. The marketing team will likely compare the messaging of each product and who they appear to be targeting, but who a company is targeting and what they present as their main value propositions are often different from how users perceive them.

For example, let’s go back to our fitness app example. Perhaps a competitor’s App Store page says that they’re the number one fitness community. It’s possible that after interviewing a representative sample of power users, you find that what comes to mind for users as useful and worth paying for isn’t the community at all, but something else.

Create research questions that get to the bottom of user perceptions so that you can add some nuance to the market data and marketing analysis.

Tip: You may want to speak with product and marketing stakeholders to hear their burning questions about people who are using your competitors' products. This will help generate some ideas for nuanced research questions.

Don’t overlook research methods when planning your competitive analysis

Just as with most other user research projects, you’ll benefit from using more than one research method if time and budget allow. Here are a few to consider, but keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list.

User interviews

It’s likely that you’ll get a lot of rich, qualitative data by interviewing people who use your competitors. When sourcing interview participants, be sure to keep in mind that there are varying levels of usage and different use cases. Make sure that you source participants who are most likely to be able to give data relevant to your research questions. For example, you may want to consider power users, users who used a competitor and then moved to another, and so on.

Tip: I’ve found that interviewing users who use both your product and a competitor are a wealth of information. They’re often good at articulating their perceived differences between the products, and can offer nuanced comparisons of your product versus one of your competitors.

Secondary research (reviews, social media commentary, etc.)

Depending on your relevant market, it’s possible that there is a lot of qualitative data worth analyzing in places like the App Store, online review sites, or on social media. Doing a systematic analysis could give you some great insights about how users perceive your product and your competitors.

Usability testing

If your team does usability testing, it’s likely that the majority of your testing is done on your own product. Doing usability testing, moderated or unmoderated, of your competitors can tell you a lot about how well users can accomplish key tasks and flows in competing products—and why.

Try the other one

This is my pet name for one of my favorite research methods: ask users of your competitors to try using your product for the first time. Ask them to complete key tasks and flows, just as in a usability test. Follow up with some interview questions about their perceived differences, both conceptually and in terms of usability. You’ll gain some great comparison insights with this knowledge for your analysis.

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Meet up for a post analysis

Once you’ve done your research and extracted your insights, it’s time to sync up with other stakeholders to make sense of their analyses and yours. Some teams like doing this in a workshop format, but you’ll have to figure out what works best within your organizational culture.

As product professionals, we know that insights are awesome—but actionable insights are invaluable. When working with your stakeholders, try to encourage everyone to infuse your deliverables with action items based on your joint analysis for all relevant areas of the company. You may have suggestions regarding product prioritization, new messaging for marketing to test via acquisition channels, partnership ideas for business development—and likely, much more.

The final step is to work together to come up with a great plan for sharing your insights and recommendations with all relevant stakeholders at your organization.

Tip: In addition to sharing the results of your analysis, make a plan for followup. Who will follow up with each department to make sure that your recommendations are considered? This will help make sure that your competitive analysis has maximum impact.

User research offers a perspective that’s too often missing from competitive analyses across a variety of industries. Why not be the person in your organization to initiate a new analysis process that gives everyone a fresh, nuanced look at your competition with your hard-earned research skills?

Cori Widen leads the UX Research team at Lightricks. She had worked in the tech industry for 10 years in various product marketing roles before honing in on her passion for understanding the user and transitioning to research. Outside work, Cori is busy reading books of all kinds, hanging out with her husband and two kids, and traveling.

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