A UX competitor analysis involves assessing competitor sites to see how they design for their users—potentially solving for similar user needs. They can be direct competitor companies operating in the same sector or they can share features, for example a high-end jewellery brand competes with other high-end jewellers but also might have customisation options similar to premium technology products.
If you’re new to working with a client a competitor analysis is good for giving you the market context that the company are operating in. It can also show what users will expect if they’ve used similar sites before. If you’re working in-house you might be very clear on who the competitors and influences are, but a proper analysis allows you to build up a deeper body of research to be referred to in future projects.
A decent analysis will help you gain an objective overview rather than get fixated on specific features. You should first be very clear on the issues your site has and the problems you're looking to solve. You can then go to the competitors to understand *how* they have tackled these problems and can assess how well their solutions would help your users.
You might want to solve your users' problem in a completely original way but this can mean users will need to work hard to understand it. People learn patterns through browsing several sites: a smart application of existing approaches will help users more intuitively know what to do.
First you need to decide what it is you want to find out about your competitors. This is defined by the challenges you’re dealing with in the project and what you want to improve—you should have learned about these from interviews, user testing, or visitor recordings. An example of a challenge might be getting users to sign up.
It might be that you can look at the same competitor sites for solutions to every challenge, in which case you should aim for at least 6 to study. If your project involves several quite disparate areas then you should look at the most relevant sites for each challenge—aim for 3-4 for each one.
When assessing how sites work you should screengrab or record your journeys, not forgetting to do it for both mobile and desktop, as they will be quite different. This way you have a record of what you’ve seen.
When you've gathered your raw materials, choose a document format you prefer for recording your findings: it’s probably going to be a text doc or presentation. Then create your report by going through each of your categories and write notes backed up with screengrab evidence of how others are solving that problem. Cover what approaches impressed you as a user most, and what approaches you think should be avoided.
Finally, I like to summarise my recommendations for the most effective features I think my project could incorporate. This should provide plenty of inspiration so you can start designing solutions.
You should never just study only one competitor because a) this is ripping someone off and b) you're missing the opportunity to learn a lot more. It’s easy for companies to get fixated on a market leader and want to copy them to bring success but this is focussing on yesterday’s solutions rather than today’s user problems.
Clients and stakeholders can often feel the need to follow the pack and say things like: “We should have feature x, everyone else has so it must be good”. Maybe this is true but it’s possible everyone else just copied the market leader without thinking (see above).
First understand the needs your users have, then assess the possible solutions and determine which best solves your problem. If your users regularly use other sites then that is a strong reason to consider similar functionality, so they don’t have to learn something new.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “we don’t want to copy anyone, we’re unique”. Working on a completely new concept is rare—there’s usually someone out there doing something similar even if it’s not directly competing. Even if you intend to stand out, an analysis of others can at least help a company position itself and be clear on how it differs.
Don't study website because they are big players or you like them, for example just because Apple are the richest company in the world doesn't mean they're right to look at for your project. Your users could be completely different and have very different motivations. Make sure there is a solid reason for each website that you look at.
The main two tools you'll need are something to screengrab with and something to record your findings. My current screengrabbing extension of choice is called FireShot on Chrome (I've used various others in the past but they all seem to stop working). The good thing about Chrome is you can also easily spoof mobile devices and screenshot those.
For reporting findings I find Google Slides is good for this as they allow for sharing with others to comment on (free). You could also use more visual approaches like InVision (free and from $13/month) and add your notes to that.
To do a complete competitor analysis and report on it normally takes 1-2 working days.
(+VAT in EU)
A template for a lightweight UX competitor analysis. 12 pages including report introduction; contents list; competitor site list; section introduction; sheets for key findings within each section, with space for screenshots; and client recommendations.