A few days ago, a friend of mine told me a story about their first visit to IDEO. At one point in their tour they saw a dozen Design Researchers standing in a makeshift kitchen, each holding a different brand of frying pan, flipping pancakes over and over again. There was one person watching and taking notes on a clipboard.
Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? Almost like a scene from Kitchen Stories. In actual fact, there was nothing weird going on – they’d simply been hired to do some design consultancy for a frying pan manufacturer, and they were doing a competitor evaluation. Some pan shapes, weights, sizes and materials are simply better suited to the ergonomics of pancake-making than others. By looking at the competitors, they neatly kick-started their knowledge of frying pan design.
Competitor evaluations are hugely beneficial at the beginning of a project, but for some reason they’ve got a bad reputation among many designers who see them as uninspiring and uncreative. Personally, I think this is nonsense. Knowing how a competitor solved a problem shouldn’t determine your solution, and without knowing the landscape of competitor designs you can easy stumble and waste time. Here’s an example: the Mail Online iPad app first-run user journey.
Step 1: when we start the app for the first time, we’re taken straight into a tutorial. What are we learning here? Not much, but there’s something about syncing mentioned there at the end.
Step 2: a detailed explanation on how to sync. They’re clearly concerned about users syncing over 3G and then getting hit with a huge bill – a valid concern, but is it worth this much emphasis?
Step 3: another entire screen dedicated to syncing. That’s some heavy instructions right there.
Here’s my point: had the designers of the Mail Online app taken the time to do a quick competitor evaluation, they’ve have have realised that ZERO competitor apps make such a big deal out of syncing, and none of them are getting negative App Store reviews as a result – in fact, quite the opposite is true. Meanwhile, the Mail Online app has ended up with a tedious first-run experience. It pays to know which design patterns work well in your problem space and which ones don’t. Of course you’re never going to get a groundbreaking UX off the back of a competitor evaluation alone, but it’s a good place to start.
In other words – don’t forget to flip those pancakes.