Posted by: bbannan | April 17, 2012

Chapter 14 – Competitive Research

Kuniavsky’s chapter on competitive research enlightened for me.  Until now, I had thought of competitive research simply as the process of analyzing your competition’s products’ features and capabilities, in order to make your products better.  It seems obvious to me now, but I hadn’t thought about using Kuniavsky’s approach of conducting user research with the competitor’s products, invoking the various techniques outlined throughout Kuniavsky’s book – interviews, usability tests, surveys, etc.

This competitive research approach makes a lot of sense to me now, as my team engages in its own user research.  Discovering what a user or a potential user has to say about a product’s features – positive or negative – is much more powerful than just assuming what works or not from your own, somewhat biased, point-of-view.

According to Kuniavsky, a major benefit of competitive research is that it “ignores assumptions and/or constraints under which [a] product was created” (2003, p.420).   User research with your own product could potentially be unbiased, but being a vested stakeholder in the entire design process, it can be difficult to be non-judgmental when considering a user’s perceptions about why your product is the way it is.  A user’s thoughts may be brushed off as irrelevant because they don’t match your goals or because they conflict with constraints in your design or development process.  With a competitor’s product, you probably have very little knowledge about the conditions under which that product was created, so you can keep a more open mind with the user feedback.

My team is not using competitive research, so I don’t have first-hand experience, but I still feel it would be a useful approach for any user experience research project.  For our project specifically, it could help to (1) see what features or approaches are already working in other applications (that we could borrow) and (2) see what content is already available that users like, so we can make changes to our application, leading it to address content that is either currently unavailable in market, or is currently poorly presented.

In order to take advantage of competitive research, it’s important to accurately determine your competition.  Levinsohn and Feenstra indentify two main factors that determine a product’s competition – the physical characteristics being similar and whether or not consumers find those physical characteristics relevant (1990, p. 201).

Desarbo, Grewal, and Wind take it a step further by defining market structure (the competition) “as the set of products judged to be substitutes within those usage situations in which similar patterns of benefits are sought…” (2006, p. 104).  This says that a competitive product isn’t necessarily one that has similar characteristics, but one that has similar benefits, or satisfies similar needs.  In this context, a competitor to an augmented reality tour could be the physical tour, or even a book about the topic, not just other mobile applications.

Desarbo, Grewal, and Wind also point out that cultural norms and brand prevalence may influence a user’s perceptions of products (2006, p. 103-104).  So, even though a user states that they really like a product’s features, it may be that they simply identify with the brand.  This could be an easy fix by hiding the identity of products, but, especially in usability testing, a particularly prevalent brand may be recognized by the users anyway.  So, even though a major benefit of user experience competitive research is that you get an actual user’s perspective rather than your own, that user perspective may still be biased.

However, within our context, I find this competitive research approach to be very useful because it forces us to think beyond the features of our application, as we consider what needs we are actually satisfying.  For my team’s project, Museum on the Mall, we don’t want to just have the best augmented reality application available, we also want to be a viable alternative to someone actually visiting a museum, or sitting at home exploring a museum’s collection via the Internet, or reading a book about dinosaurs.  We want to connect directly with our user’s needs.


Desarbo, W. S., Grewal, R., & Wind, J. (2006).  Who competes with whom? A demand-based perspective

for identifying and representing asymmetric competition.  Strategic Management Journal, 27 (2), 101-129. doi: 10.1002/sm.505

Levinsohn, J. & Feenstra, R. (1990).  Identifying the competition.  Journal of International Economics, 28

(3-4), 199-215.

Kuniavsky, M. (2003).  Observing the user experience: A practitioner’s guide to user research.  San

Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.



  1. My team did use competitive research both last semester and this semester. I found that it is a good way to take a look at what is currently on the market in order to compare your thoughts and ideas to it. Last semester we conducted competitive research strictly to find out what was on the market that could compete with our idea. This semester, we took the competitive research one step further and looked at the functionality of the tools. How did their navigation flow? Were their problems that we could have avoided? Since it gave our team another data source, I would recommend it to other projects in the future

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