Focus Competitive Research on Customers Not Competitors

A common practice in design and product research is to perform a feature-by-feature comparison between competitors. Sometimes, this is a heavy influence on the product roadmaps, under the supposition that feature parity is desirable or even critical to compete.

However, basing a strategy on what a competitor is doing is rarely an effective plan. While it's important to understand what competitors are up to, matching them feature for feature reduces products to commodities, shifting the terrain of competition to pricing.

An additional risk is that it's very difficult to know or understand the rationale or strategy that went into the competitor's feature-set. They may be pursuing different goals or aims, that may be distinct or even counter to your goals; that being the case, basing a strategy on their approach may be competitive or even harmful. Moreover, even if there was alignment between yours and your competitor's outcomes, it's rare that you can get insight into whether or not their tactic has been particularly effective, much less well-conceived. You won't have the full story of where it came from: the feature may have been designed to appease a noisy stakeholder, the result of design-by-committee, or a hastily-assembled placeholder solution that needs to be updated or redesigned completely.

The better mindset to have when approaching competitive research is to focus on customer needs. Keep in mind that the customer doesn't want to use your product; they want to solve for some need or problem that they have. Use the competitive scan to understand the options they have for solving that problem, and consider how they meet their needs without you. Then, look to solve a better product or solution than what's already available.


Related

Citations

Acunzo, Jay. Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. Unthinkable Media, 2018.

Kalbach, Jim, and Michael Schrage. The Jobs To Be Done Playbook: Align Your Markets, Organization, and Strategy Around Customer Needs. New York: Two Waves Books, 2020.

Lombardo, C. Todd, Bruce McCarthy, Evan Ryan, and Michael Connors. Product Roadmaps Relaunched: How to Set Direction While Embracing Uncertainty. 1st edition. Beijing: O’Reilly Media, 2017.


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