Watch Out For that Tree! Problems with Competitive Analysis

by July 17, 2023

Within companies around the World, it's common practice to look at what competitors are doing when designing new experiences. But these kinds of competitive analyses can easily take you off course just like bikers steering directly into trees.

Anyone that's learned how ride a bike or drive a car is probably familiar with the often repeated advice: "look where you want to go". The basic idea is to look forward toward where you want to end up (the exit of a turn, the end of a straight) and not where you don't (obstacles, off the road, etc.). But why?

Target fixation is a psychological phenomenon where people become so focused on an observed object that they unintentionally steer towards it, often leading to collisions. Initially noted among WWII fighter pilots, it's now commonly associated with road safety scenarios and what leads bikers to steer directly into trees. Ouch.

But what does this have to do with product design? If you fixate on what the competition is doing, you'll likewise unintentionally steer towards it. Think about the walls filled with competitor's designs in a design war room or the wiki pages outlining competitor's messaging and feature sets. All this target fixation steer your solutions toward the past (what's already been done by others) instead of where you need to go.

Competitive Analysis

So how do you "look where you want to go" in product design? Deeply understand the problem you are trying to solve, who is experiencing it, and how. Talk to potential customers, do research, and keep learning. Each insight will point you to more questions and illuminate your destination for you much more clearly than what your competitors are doing.

And what if you ultimately end up with solutions that are similar to a competitor? Well, that means they've followed a similar process and come to understand the problem as deeply as you have (or they just got lucky). But if you don't go through the process yourself, you'll never have the conviction needed to make hard decisions on product design and strategy. Or worse, you might end up copying solutions from other companies that missed the mark because they were just copying too.