Competitive Analysis

Competitive Analysis

Early in a design process, it can be helpful to conduct an analysis of potential peer or competitor websites. What counts as a peer or competitor may depend on the project: an academic department may benefit from considering a different department at the same institution, the same department at a different institution, or both. But, keeping a small set of peers in mind as a benchmark can be helpful.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Looking to peers can help ensure that a website has all content and functionality that is needed. Doing so can help mitigate the risk that important features are not identified early in a project. Evaluating peers can even reveal opportunities to fill a gap that no other peer is providing. Also, evaluating peers can improve design by revealing patterns that are successful or unsuccessful to follow or avoid, as appropriate.
There are serious issues wish competitive analysis, though. One challenge reviewing peers, if not done in a methodical way, and devolve into simply creating a wishlist of features to be copied without any insight to how they will provide value or whether they are appropriate. Peer reviews done well should ultimately improve the usability of a design.
A second challenge is narrowing down the scope of a review. Competitors can be evaluated in any number of ways. Common metrics include features offered, content included, audiences served, interaction design, visual design, user flow, and usability of specific tasks. It can be prohibitive to evaluate many peers across all of these dimensions. The most useful competitive analyses will limit themselves to one or two of the above areas, depending on what is most helpful to a project.

Conducting the Analysis

The particular methods and deliverables of a competitive analysis will vary depending on the kinds of issues being addressed.
One very straightforward way of conducting a competitive analysis is to perform usability tests across competitors using the same testing scenarios. Asking users to complete the same tasks across websites or applications can narrow design decisions and reveal opportunities for comparative advantage. If you notice that users have a difficult time a certain kind of information or completing a particular task on many of your peers, you can differentiate yourself by prioritizing that area for your site or application.
A much different way reviewing peers is to create a spreadsheet with a row for each competitor and columns for important kinds of information you’d like to know. This approach is appropriate if your goal is to inventory features offered, such as a list of social media integrations or kinds of content present on a site. It can also be used to make subjective ratings, such as evaluating quality of copywriting or ease of navigation.
Conducting a competitive analysis can be valuable but time consuming. Using multiple people to evaluate the same competitors can be helpful, as it guards against subjectivity. Dividing up peers among evaluators can complete the work quickly, but risks creating inconsistent data. When using multiple people, make sure that all people are comfortable with the evaluation methodology and spreadsheet, if used. It may be helpful to evaluate a few peers together to ensure consistency before dividing the work. 
Further Reading