Testing your site’s existing design along with a few competitor websites provides valuable insight for new designs. Competitive studies help you avoid developing unusable new features.image

So, Your Site is Ready for a Redesign

Where should you start? There are many UX activities that can help your project start off on the right foot. One of them is competitive usability testing.That is, usability studies of the existing design along with several competitor websites. Resist the urge to jump on your computer and start designing right away.

Even if a redesign (or refresh) is required, don’t be so quick to throw away the existing design. You can learn from it. Use it as a starting point for your new project by gathering user feedback and feeding it into your new design. Before you begin, know how aggressive a change you need. For Agile teams, competitive testing is a worthwhile activity to perform during sprint zero.

Your old site is the best prototype of your new site: it’s already fully implemented and it solves exactly the design problem you’re targeting: a website for your business.  For sure, the old site doesn’t solve the design problem perfectly, but it’s not enough to say that it’s bad. You need to know in which specific ways it’s bad. And you also need to find out what aspects of the old design are loved by users. The short history of the Internet is rife with examples of major web properties that redesigned only to be met by a storm of user requests for great features that had been inadvertently removed.

Competitive usability studies provide a way for you to assess different design patterns and user flows, and determine which concepts might work and not work for your audience. They allow you to test ideas without having to build the designs yourself and to discover new interactions for your site and avoid mistakes made by others. Usability studies lay the groundwork for the redesign process and keep you and your team focused on the right issues. You feel more confident about your decisions because you’ve witnessed people interacting with websites in similar situations.

We’ve all wondered about our competition — How well are they presenting information? How are they better than us? It is good to browse websites for inspiration. However, don’t stop there. Test them. If you find concepts and ideas you like, don’t rush to copy them. The design might look good but might not be usable. Minimize risk by testing designs and know for certain whether or not they work before it’s too late. Resist the temptation to emulate without proper knowledge. This is why we often find bad design replicated across many different websites.

Learn From Competitive Usability Tests

Teams waste much time debating over design solutions and making decisions based on personal preference or bias. Rather than continue the debate, competitive testing allows teams to get feedback from target users early, so they can make informed decisions. It’s much easier to argue over opinions than user data.

Competitors’ sites are the second-best prototypes of your new site: they solve almost the same design problem as you have, and they are fully implemented instances of designs that these other companies have invested major resources in polishing.

Competitive tests can help you with the following:

  • Evaluate future features. Before you offer or build a new feature, learn whether customers consider it valuable or how it could be designed better. Seeing how customers react to features on the competitor’s site can help you determine whether they’re worth the effort.
  • Examine similar features.Your site may offer features similar to those on competitor sites, but one process might work better than the other. By examining varying designs of similar features, you can quickly identify the elements that work and make your design better while avoiding mistakes made on other websites.
  • Discover better ways to doing things. Your site might test well, but testing other sites might reveal features and interactions that you haven’t thought of. Having people react to different designs gives them an opportunity to compare and contrast. Participants are often better at articulating their thoughts and retrieving memories when they have several examples to which they can refer.

Conducting Competitive Usability Tests

Competitive studies don’t need to take long; usually 2 days are sufficient. Spend a few days studying your website along with 1-2 competitive websites and the study will yield fruitful findings that answer complex UX questions and provide inspiration for new ideas. 2 days is quick—a small price to pay in the context of a project timeline.

We run most competitive usability tests based on thethinking-aloud methodology. In this type of study, each participant performs the same tasks on every website (e.g., Site A, Site B, and Site C) while thinking out loud. We observe how people interact with each website and note verbal feedback. At the end of each session, we may ask users which version they prefer and why. The key is to understand the rationale behind people’s behavior.

To combat order effects, alternate the sequence of the websites that participants evaluate. For each participant, keep the number of websites they evaluate at 3 or less. When evaluating too many sites, tasks become monotonous and difficult to track for participants.

Select sites with interesting features. The sites you select do not need to be direct competitors. It’s best to aim for diversity by comparing sites that have features and designs distinctly different than yours. Don’t waste your time testing sites that you know are bad. The study will generate more valuable ideas when you include sites that might outperform your site. It’s OK to lose now you will win later.

Conclusion

Before you redesign your site, make sure that you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your current design. Garner design ideas and alternatives by studying your competitors. The focus of competitive tests is not to crown a winner, but to gain deeper insight into why design elements work or fail so we can make informed decisions moving forward.

(source:Nielsen Norman Group)