No user operates in a vacuum and likewise, no product team works in one. We see and compare products against their competitors. The upside of this is that product teams can ‘stand on the shoulders of giants, while also being motivated to improve on existing patterns and experiences.
Conducting this comparison within a Competitive Audit gives you a structure and tools which ensure the outcomes are credible, professional, and shareable for a product team, and also within the organization more broadly. The insights of a Competitor Audit can lift everyone from design and product to sales, marketing, and even the C-suite.
This post is about user experience Competitive Audits, for people seeking to find insights that help evolve digital products. Most likely, you will intuitively already use ad-hoc competitor research. This post focuses on conducting a ‘research study’ style Audit, using tools and participants, but desk research audits and ad-hoc audits are covered with a few helpful tips, too.
Competitive Audit basics
What is a Competitive Audit in product research?
A Competitive Audit is a methodical examination of the product options available to users.
This could be as simple as screenshotting how different apps perform the same task; or more complex, such as setting tasks for test users on a competitor’s website and recording their performance. Each part of the term is important: it needs to look at products which compete in your field; and it must be conducted with the rigour of a methodical examination.
Is a Competitive Audit the same as a competitor analysis?
The term ‘competitor analysis’ is sometimes interchangeable with ‘Competitive Audit’. To be more strict, a competitor analysis is done for marketing and visual design objectives, whereas a Competitive Audit is more concerned with deeper product and user experience issues.
What is examined in a Competitor Audit?
All aspects of an experience can be assessed in the audit:
- User flows
- Single screen UX and layout
- All forms of content use; or
- User interface design and presentation.
Basically, anything at all which users interact with.
Who is interested in Competitor Audits?
The audience for an Audit can be as high-level as the CEO, CTO, or other C-suiters; but the more common audience is each member of a product team: researchers, designers, managers, and engineers. With the importance of the product-marketing relationship, Competitor Audit outcomes may be of great interest to people in sales and marketing roles, too.
And last, but not least, the audience could simply be you!
How to define your competitors
As a starting point, competitors are those who are targeting the same users and use cases as your product. Staying close to that definition will give your Competitive Audit credibility and relevance, however looking more widely may spark more innovation.
Direct competitors are addressing the same problem for the same people as your product. Your users will specifically compare you against this group when making a choice about which product to use for a given task.
Indirect competitors may be addressing the same problem for different people, or inversely, a different problem for the same people. Users will not naturally compare your product with this group, but it influences expectations and may ignite fresh ideas for your product.
How to find competitors
Most businesses already know who their main competitors are, but if you’re at a loss, your marketing team or senior leaders should have a laser view on this.
Failing that, I’d be concerned, but hitting Google pretty hard for answers. Keyword searches, including terms like ‘buy’, ‘best’ or ‘cheapest’, which indicate intention, should uncover competitor ads.
Or, search your own business name, and perhaps include ‘alternative’. Google, and others, also offer an ever-changing set of keyword tools. You may find one that works for unearthing competitors, but I haven’t found them to be that helpful.
On another tack, creating a simple customer activation flow diagram will get you thinking about the competitive landscape and might help find different competitors or classes of competitor. This starts with who potential customers are, and what problem you’re solving for them, and works through the steps they might take before they decide to sign up for your product.
Try to find decision points which involve the customer assessing competitive options. Competitors shouldn’t be too far from those points.
Why conduct a competitor audit?
Given that most people are already keeping an eye on what competitors are doing, it shouldn’t be too hard to sell the concept of a Competitive Audit. However, if there are any doubts, there are many benefits to be considered.
It’s a more ‘scientific’ way of doing what you already do
Your colleagues will already be casually checking competitors, but the value of that is severely limited. Give research efforts the best chance of being helpful and impactful, by conducting a more thorough Competitor Audit.
A shortcut to developing options
If you have a design option which is somewhat replicated in an existing product, running a Competitor Audit on that product can be used to initially assess the option. This saves time and other resources as you don’t have to create a new prototype for testing.
Understand the user and market context, and uncover design patterns
Particularly as you’re working out the problem space, seeing the pain points and delightful moments created by competitor’s products can inform your work.
In many ways, the practice of user experience is the art of empathy. Seeing what users experience with competitive products allows you to alter yours in a way that will perform better.
Avoid go-to solutions, jargon, insider language, and insider patterns
Competitor Audits can be a reality check if you’ve been creating and talking with the same group of colleagues about a project for months, or feel you may be falling into lazy design.
Clearly see where others are winning and losing
You can expect a Competitive Audit to pinpoint friction in a user flow; places where a product could do more or better; outright mistakes; and, of course, successful ways to address your user’s problems.
Use an appropriate level of resources
The amount of time, thought, and money you commit to a Competitive Audit is flexible. It can be as quick and simple as an afternoon by a junior researcher.
No special expertise is required to conduct an Audit
Although you’ll want to carefully plan your Competitive Audit, the tasks involved in conducting it are simple and can be carried out by almost anyone with time available. Tools such as UXtweak’s Competitive Testing Tool are easy to find and use, and come at a comparatively low price.
Ensure indirect competitors are included
Most off-the-cuff competitor checking revolves around direct competitors, which is great for finding competitive opportunities to improve or go one better. A Competitive Audit ensures you also assess indirect competitors, which should spark innovation and uncover new product ideas for reach growth.
What to avoid when assessing competitors
There is a dark side to looking at what others are doing in your field! To avoid that, address each of the points below when planning your Competitor Audit.
Be sure to eliminate:
- Outright copying
- Group-think, just repeating existing low-quality patterns because they’re common
- Aiming for feature-for-feature matching or obsessing over what they are doing!
- Validating your own existing prejudices
- Trying to solve all questions in one study – aim for just one or two questions per Audit
- Being a substitute for other qualitative research which digs into users problems
- Being the only source of research and ideas.
User experiences where a Competitor Audit can help
I’m sure you can imagine many aspects of your product which would benefit from a Competitive Audit. If you need some prompting, the following items are popular subjects for Audits.
- Homepage experience and finding destinations, on a website or app
- Sign up, any onboarding, and log in for a website or app
- Primary task initiation, performance and completion for a website, online store, or app
- Marketing landing page experience and hitting key buttons/CTAs
Planning a Competitive Audit
Like any research study, the planning of a Competitive Audit is the foundation of its success. I suggest the following structure for an Audit plan.
- Scope: Define the audience, and available time, and money for the Audit
- Requirements: Outline tools and people needed to conduct the Audit
- Rigour: How will the audit ensure rigour and maintain some objectivity?
- The Problem: Set and validate the questions to be answered and goals for the outcomes
- Competitors: Lits the direct and indirect competitors (aim for say 3 to 6). Note: Include your own product in the study
- History: A brief outline of how the market/competitive field got to it’s current state can be helpful. What has failed or succeeded in this space and why?
- Delivery: Outline what artefacts will be created and their use, being sensitive to how the outcomes will be digested by your stakeholders. Include formats for the information to be gathered, for example a Figma layout to be used to present findings about the quantity and positioning of buttons in each competitive piece.
Different kinds of Competitor Audits
Select the kind of Competitor Audit which best suits the current circumstances. In broad terms, a Competitor Audit will fall into one of these categories.
Ad-hoc/grab-and-go: this is the competitor research you may already be doing, so not truly an Audit as such. But don’t discount this approach. While it is certainly limited, simply adding a definition of the problem, competitors and history, like a more formal Audit, can lift the value of a grab-and-go competitor study.
Desk research: an Audit with a full plan, but only undertaken by one researcher who notes all their own observations. This can be impactful but lacks solid rigour, and the validity of results inferred by multi-user involvement.
A step up for this would be involving your colleagues, family or friends as testing participants. This approach won’t have real statistical significance, but is quick, easy and can yield more meaningful observations.
Research Study: plan the Audit thoroughly and use tools and a testing participant pool. This can range from using a small group of easy-to-gather participants to a large study with many participants, with the sweet spot for most being an audit simply conducted with online tools and participants.
For creating the study, UXtweak Competitive Usability Testing is the go-to tool, and with good reason: it’s so easy to set up. UXtweak also provides pools of online respondents, at a reasonable price, seamlessly with their other tools.
Using UXtweak Competitive Usability Testing
To start, you’ll need to register a UXtweak account. You can use the free tier to create your Competitive Audit, and the only cost will be for the responses.
- Once your account is set up, create a new website testing study, entering the competitor URL for assessment, and other parameters or questions.
- Specify the tasks you want your respondents to complete on the website. They should be realistic and reflect common user activities.
- Hit ‘Launch’ and it’s ready to go.
- You can then share the study link with respondents, and when they open it, they will be prompted to install a UXtweak Chrome Extension to collect data. Once installed, they will be let into the study to complete the tasks. Respondents can be from anywhere, but are available within UXtweak should you need them.
P.S The Extension can be handy for assessing your own sites as you don’t need to change any code, keeping your site performant and your code clean.
One thing I like about this setup is the accuracy and visualization of the stats which are gathered, together with the qualitative recordings which can be viewed for more context. Also, I don’t think a high-grade study could be any more simple to create.
Check out our Demo Competitive Audit Study to see UXtweak in action!
Check out UXtweak’s Competitive Usability testing tool.
Competitor Audits are immensely helpful
Assessing competitors is a vital, natural, and common way to validate your ideas and inspire new ways of addressing user problems. However, ad-hoc competitor research may not be credible and comes with real dangers to businesses.
A Competitor Audit addresses both of these shortcomings, and has the potential to elevate how products are made, sold and used. Beyond that, as a designer, I find it fascinating to see how similar problems are solved differently, and now, simple tools to do an Audit are immediately available.
Conduct your first Competitive Usability Test with UXtweak for free!