Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Differentiating Your Design: A Visual Approach to Competitive Reviews

Criticle reviews of your own work ...

"A common activity at the outset of many design projects is a competitive review. As a designer, when you encounter a design problem, it’s a natural instinct to try to understand what others are doing to solve the same or similar problems. However, like other design-related activities, if you start a competitive review without a clear purpose and strategy for the activity, doing the review may not be productive. One risk is that you may find you’ve wasted your time reviewing and auditing other sites, because you end up with findings that don’t help you design your own solution. Another risk is that the design and interactions of competitor offerings might influence your solution too heavily, whether you intend them to or not. Once you’ve seen how others have solved a particular problem, their solutions may subconsciously affect your own thinking.

But while competitive reviews pose some risks, I contend that doing them is still valuable. Designing without first understanding what others are doing in the same competitive space means you’ll miss out on an opportunity to leverage others’ experience, and you might not be cognizant of possible threats to your strategy. To differentiate your Web sites and applications in the marketplace, you must be aware of what others are doing. Key to a successful competitive review is to have a clear objective for your review and minimize the risk of bias when doing your own designs. In this column, I’ll discuss a structured approach to competitive reviews I’ve used successfully to help my team understand the competition. This approach focuses on identifying opportunities for differentiation.

Other Approaches to Competitive Reviews

Before outlining my new approach to competitive reviews, let’s look at some other approaches I’ve tried that contrast with my approach. To appreciate the process and the value my approach brings, it’s important to understand what my new approach is not.

Usability Analysis

As a designer with a background in usability and human factors, my initial inclination when doing competitive reviews was to perform a usability analysis of competitor sites. Such a usability analysis could take many forms—for example, doing usability testing with representative users or a heuristic analysis of competitor offerings with one or more reviewers. The key objective of these types of analysis methods is to identify the usability problems of a given design. I was familiar with these techniques, and it seemed natural to apply them to a review of competitor sites.

When analyzing competitor sites, I found that identifying usability problems in their designs was encouraging. Seeing all of their problems gave me confidence I could design a better solution that would avoid those problems. It seemed logical that, if I understood the usability issues in other designs, I could avoid them in my own. But this approach had a couple of limitations. First, my designs were inherently different from those of competitors. My designs had their own unique sets of usability considerations, and the issues I found in competitors’ designs were not necessarily relevant to my own. Second, and more important, simply identifying usability problems in other designs did little to help me understand unique opportunities for differentiation."    (Continued via UXMatters, Michael Hawley)    [Usability Resources]

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