A UX competitor analysis means assessing competitor sites to see how they design for their users, as they are likely to be solving similar user needs. They can be directly competing companies operating in the same sector or they could 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 operates in. It can also tell you 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 that you can refer 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 think you don't need to look at competitors as you want to solve your users' problem in a completely original way. However this can mean users will need to work harder to understand your site. 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 would be getting users to sign up to a service.
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 features 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 to get a record of what you've found. Don't forget to do it for both mobile and desktop, as they will be quite different.
When you've gathered your raw materials, choose a document format you prefer for recording your findings: I like a simple slide presentation. Then create your report by going through each of your categories and writing notes backed up with visual evidence of how others are solving that problem. Cover the approaches that impressed you as a user the most, and the 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 there would still be 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 websites just 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 the right inspiration 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 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.