Learning by Shipping

products, development, management…

Learning from Competition

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Gotcha. Traitor. Snicker. Those were some of the reactions when people discovered that I was using an iPhone. I stand before you accused of using a competitor’s [sic] product and I plead guilty.

Moving beyond the gotcha blogs, there’s an actual reason for using technology products and services other than the ones you make (or happen to be made by the company where you work/ed). I think everyone knows that, even a thousand tweets later.  The approach in many industries to downplay or even become hostile to the competition are well-documented and studied, and generally conclude that experiencing the competition is a good thing.

Learning from the competition is not just required of all product development folks, but can also be somewhat of a skill worth honing. Let’s look at the ins and outs of using a competitive product.

Why?

Obviously you should use a competitive product. You should know what you’re up against when a consumer (or business) ultimately faces a buying decision. They will weigh a wide array of factors and you should be aware of those not only for the purposes of sales and marketing but when you are designing your products.

It is easy to fall into the trap of checklists or cloning competitive products and so that might be why you follow the competition. That’s a weak way to compete. Part of planning your product/service is establishing your unique value proposition—is it features, pricing, implementation or execution for example?

Simply being the same as your competitor that might be more established is not good enough and so knowing the competition for the sake of skimming their value proposition won’t work. Generally speaking, just adding the cool thing from a competitor at the last minute to your product’s plan is not going to work well for customers and will be readily transparent. That’s checklist product development.

Product development is a complex endeavor. There is no magic. Worse than that, most people making products in a “category” are pulling insights, ideas, and technologies from the same sources. What separates wildly successful products from distant number two products can often be just a few of thousands of choices.

Studying your competitor, well, gives you a chance to evaluate your choices in an entirely different context. When you make a product choice you are making it in the context of your company, strategy, business model, and people/talents. What if you change some of those? That is what knowing the competition allows you to do, and basically for free (no consultants or top secret research).

What does it mean to study the competition well? What are some common mistakes made when studying the competition?

Common Mistakes

Even when you study the competition, there are some techniques that are often employed, and with the best of intentions. There are ways of executing on a competitive analysis that leave some information on the table.

Worse, it is possible to execute on a competitive analysis from a dismissive or get this over with posture that takes away what is perhaps the most valuable source of information in forward looking product design.

While there are many potential challenges, here are a couple of examples of patterns I’ve seen.

  • Using the product in a lightweight manner. All too often analyzing the competition itself becomes a checklist work item. Go to the store and play with it for a few minutes. Maybe ask a friend or neighbor what they think. The usage of a competitive product needs to be in depth and over time. You need to use the product like it is your primary product and not switch or fall back to your old way of working. Often this is weeks or more of usage. Even as a reviewer this applies. Walt Mossberg famously took an iPad on a 10 day trip to France—no laptop at all. That’s how to use a product.
  • Thinking like yourself, not the competition. When using a competitive product you need to use it like it was intended to be used by the designers. Don’t get the product and use the customization tools to morph it into the familiar. Even if a product has a mode to make it work like the familiar (as a competitive bridge they offer) don’t use it. Use native file formats. Use defaults in the UI and functionality. Follow the designed workflow. They key is to let loose of your muscle memory and develop new memory.
  • Betting competitors act similarly (or even rationally). If you think like a competitor you have to make future decisions like they might. Of course you can’t really do that or really know and this is where product intuition comes to mind (and also why blogs predicting product directions are often off the mark). You have to really wrap yourself around the culture, constraints, resources, and more of a competitor. The reality is that your competitor is not going “fix” their product to turn it into your product. So then the question is what would a competitors do in their context, not what would you do if you were designing the follow-on product in your context. This might actually feel irrational to you. One of the most classic examples of this is whether or not the Mac OS should have been licensed to other PC makers or not. Arguments could be made either way, both then and now. But what is right or assumed in one context simply doesn’t make sense in another. That context can also include a time dimension where the answer actually changes.
  • Assume the world is static. Even after you’ve reviewed a competitor through usage you might feel confident because they are missing some features or might have done some things poorly. That’s a static view of the world. Keep in mind analyzing the competition is a two-way street. If you noticed a weakness there’s a really good chance the competitor knew about it. When everyone pointed out that a phone was missing copy/paste, don’t make a mistake thinking that was news to the development team and would remain a competitive advantage.

Approaches

There’s a reason Patton often made reference to Thucydides treatise on the History of the Peloponnesian War. It is a thorough and thoughtful analysis that goes beyond who won which battles but gets inside the minds of the men, the culture, and the thought processes. Competing in business is not war and should not be treated as such, either literally or as a metaphor (the stakes are relatively insignificant and business is an endless series of skirmishes and battles rather than aiming for an ‘end’, at the very least). However, the idea of being thoughtful and understanding tactics, decision making, resource allocation, and more are important.

There are a few techniques that are often used in conjunction with using the product. The most important thing is of course to use the product and to adopt it as your primary tool for all the uses it was intended in the manner in which it was intended. With that raw data, there are number of potential tools for sharing that learning:

  • Feature comparisons. The most obvious tool is to make a long list of features and compare products. This works well for some folks and especially when handed to customers. It is also the least useful in product design. A feature checklist is only as good as the features you put on it. We all know how easy it is to make a product look feature rich or feature poor simply by picking the right set of features to check off. You can even pick weird measures for whether a feature is in or not—you could have a “WiFi” check item or you could make it “WiFi a/b/g/n” and change who won or lost. You can also lead to a false conclusion if you try to score or just count features—it is doubling the error rate of your check list because you’re doubly-assuming your context.
  • SWOT. A common “single slide” approach to competitors is to distill down competition into something like strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. These are very hard to do well, again because of the context, but by including all of these you force yourself to confront your own product shortcoming and missteps. Personally, I don’t like the use of “threats” because it starts to conjure up war and sports metaphors but you can think of them as risks that customers won’t choose your product/service. SWOT is often used by the marketing team because you can intermix near term tactics in the marketplace (opportunities).
  • Scenario comparisons. A nice way to take a more end-to-end approach to competitive analysis is to consider more complete scenarios. If you’re testing for battery life then don’t just play a movie, but play a movie with the radios on and an active mailbox, as an example. As with everything, it is important to pick scenarios that are truly representative of what a product was designed to do and how it was designed to do it, not how your product/service does. Measuring a scenario comparison could involve clicks/gestures, clock time, resource consumption, and more.
  • Competitive review or blog. My favorite test of really getting in the mind of the competitor is to challenge yourself to review your own product as though you were the competitor. Alternatively, you could write a press release or blog for a competitive product—the product that competes with you. I remember once writing a whole “press kit” for what became Visual C++ as though I were the Borland C++ team. It was great fun. Rather than focus on Windows (3.0!) development, I focused on compiler speed, code size, array of command line options, and more. Those were the things that Borland would focus on. I then ripped into Visual C++ as a Borland person, highlighting what options were missing, the slowness of the tools, and so on. Even though VC++ 1.0 had a Windows dev environment, resource editor, class library and more—all assets relative to Borland.

Of course not matter what your approach, be sure to write down your work and analysis (writing is thinking!) and share it with the team (learning by sharing).

Be Obsessed

Those are a few common pitfalls and approaches to competitive analysis.  There are many more.  Feel free to share your favorite approaches in the comments.

Finally, studying the competition is the job of everyone on a team. Importantly, the people doing the work need to study the competition. It is not a job for a staff function or those outside product development. Management studies the competition not just receives reports on the competition. Experts in domains that are parts of a product should drill into the details of the competition (hardware, software, subsystems, peripherals, APIs, etc.)

Be obsessed with the competition. Always. This has never been truer than the fast paced and dynamic world of products where the flow of information is instant and the scale and complexity are greater than ever before.

–Steven

PS: My plan was not to publish so frequently/rapidly, but even in my old MS blog if something came up that was so timely relative to the ongoing dialog, I’d do a quick post.  I’m still going to pace myself :-)

###

Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 14, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Posted in posts

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55 Responses

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  9. So how come I never see ipads in buildings 26, 27 or 28? How would you overcome the culture where people are afraid to bring in their competitors products?

    A Microsoftie

    May 6, 2013 at 7:52 am

  10. Pretty interesting you talk about studying competition. It’s very clear iPad was not studied in the slightest, beyond the UI, in building Windows 8. There’s a lot more to iPad than the UI. I will leave that to you to figure out, and compare. Try to compare them side by side when you are watching videos, reading books, seeing how often they last without being powered etc. etc. Don’t compare running office :-) and being able to bring up a command prompt. I think you should write about using iPad instead of iPhone given your responsibility for shipping a slate, to study the competition. What was shipped was clearly not a slate nor even close to being an iPad competitor. It’s a PC and it says so in the UI. It’s amazing that all of this wisdom is being shared, when none of it was actually applied. Clearly no competitive use was made.

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  13. gives a nice idea about the competition in market and strategies how to cope up with it

    SchoolAndUniversity.com

    January 22, 2013 at 1:09 am

  14. Sinofsky.. I am so happy at least you got kicked out of MS. You made such a crappy OS called Win 8. Tell me why the hell did you do that. It is so many step backward. I really hope MS stock plummet with Win 8 fall and you also loose the value of your stocks.

    Anonymous

    January 20, 2013 at 3:45 pm

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    OyiaBrown

    January 20, 2013 at 8:02 am

  16. Reblogged this on KNOWLEDGE MUST SHARE.

    andyterryonsg

    January 20, 2013 at 5:23 am

  17. Thanks for this post! We all want to innovate and improve our product, and what better way to learn from people who are trying to do the same? It’s true too that you can’t just study the competitor just for the sake of doing it. There’s so much more to learn and extract if the strategy were maximized.

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    January 19, 2013 at 9:33 am

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    January 17, 2013 at 7:28 pm

  19. I like your active writing style. If we are to remain relevant we need to be aware of what is happening around us, and be able to respond to our customers need in a reaonable timeframe.

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    January 17, 2013 at 7:08 pm

  20. This is an interesting debate of our time. As a tech user, I love having the options. And, as long as healthy competition continues to thrive, those options continue to improve.

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    January 17, 2013 at 4:21 pm

  21. Great post !

    phillybookpicks

    January 17, 2013 at 8:01 am

  22. Oh, now I know why it felt so familiar. It felt odd to have a blog be so technical; the suspense was at the end. :D

    conanon

    January 17, 2013 at 5:07 am

  23. I’m learning a lot not only from the post but from the comments too. In business, competition,customers, trends and all other factors that affects it needs to be obsessed about. Thank you for the insights. :=)

    elliotclaire

    January 17, 2013 at 4:24 am

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    kelseysilbert

    January 17, 2013 at 4:16 am

  25. This was a good post. Not what I expected to read about when I clicked in the Freshly Pressed category.

    Congratulations!

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    TheWordpressGhost

    January 17, 2013 at 3:50 am

  26. Isn’t it ironic?

    The market leader.

    The company that is still growing.

    Is constantly told it is being beaten up …. Until the competition passes Apple, I have no desire to go back to the inferior product. That doesn’t mean I don’t use the older inferior products. I just do not want to.

    ghost.

    TheWordpressGhost

    January 17, 2013 at 3:49 am

  27. Nice. Thanks for sharing

    Ali Prescott

    January 17, 2013 at 12:52 am

  28. So, what are your thoughts on the plummet in Apple stocks during the last three quarters (or, to be more precise, it’s 15 dollar drop in share prices just this past Tuesday)? It’s apparent that, though still lagging, Google’s Android and Amazon’s Kindle are catching up and preparing to overtake Apple’s share of the smartphone and tablet markets. ((Though, to be fair, Apple never quite broke into the tablet market the way it should have: with a focus on business usage; nevertheless, it is losing pull in a market it created — with the iPad — under the guidance of Jobs.))
    How innovative is the iPhone 5, when Samsung can not only create a better phone (with many of the iPhone 5’s “new” features and then some), but also afford to make a 2 minute commercial parodying the “next big thing” that the iPhone 5 was supposed to represent?
    I applaud your mini-essay on the need for, and results of, competitive observation/analysis, but it seems you’re writing more for a company that needs to read this post (even if it is still the biggest, most profitable corporation on the planet), rather than the idea that many companies lack the innovation of Apple, simply because they refuse to observe what Apple has done, or is doing. In contrast, it seems every company worth noting (MS, Google, even Amazon) has done a bang up job of observing and analyzing Apple; the results are now paying off for them. But, where does Apple stand?

    dendschmidt

    January 17, 2013 at 12:05 am

  29. Well, then, if the point of using an iPhone was to learn more about the landscape of mobile devices, what did you find? How does the iPhone stack up against Windows Phone and Android? :)

    Anonymous

    January 16, 2013 at 10:36 pm

  30. Even short posts are hard to do and takes lots of time to write. Thanks for sharing.

    segmation

    January 16, 2013 at 6:48 pm

  31. Totally right. I felt like I was reading “the art of war”, but with techy references.

    theyuster

    January 16, 2013 at 3:02 pm

  32. Thanks for the approaches section. Very useful stuff.

    MJH

    January 16, 2013 at 2:28 am

  33. True statement. Many of my friends who own Mac’s always buy MS Office because they use it for school work.

    dlopez6243

    January 15, 2013 at 10:50 pm

  34. Despite owning an iPhone I would still love to use a Windows Phone 8. I was able to demo one at a Microsoft Store I love it. I love apple products but Windows always has a spot with me.

    dlopez6243

    January 15, 2013 at 10:48 pm

  35. And yet you’d be surprised at how many companies take the opposite belief, thinking themselves better than everyone else.

  36. I agree with you Sir, One need to know competition , the best way is by using them. Don’t slow down. You posts are so thoughtful and treat to read.

    Sunil Mittal

    January 15, 2013 at 10:49 am

  37. I don’t want to sound very bad here.. but because Microsoft extensively used iPhone that is why Windows Phone 7 = iPhone 1. Microsoft just blidly followed iPhone and did Windows Phone.. Android is Windows Mobile.. you guys just had to improve Windows Mobile. No doubt Windows Phone is promising OS.. but needs a lot of improvement.. its not upto what today’s leading devices are providing.. Windows Phone 8 is really not that great OS.. we were expecting a lot more from WP8, but its a little failure..

    Source: I am Windows Phone early adopter.

    Anonymous

    January 15, 2013 at 9:46 am

  38. I wish more Microsoft employees would use Apple and Google products. There is a lot of things to learn from them and both companies do things way better than anybody else. Anybody playing catchup to Google and Apple, needs to use their products or risk missing on the formulas to success.

    LS

    January 15, 2013 at 7:05 am

  39. I don’t know what Microsoft has paid Jessica Alba or if they have. I notice that she’s using her Lumia in her daily life from the photos and posts she makes on Facebook with it, far beyond the usual usage by endorsing celebs who get kit all the time; perhaps she actually likes it, which would be a more interesting story to cover. But do you really think celebrity endorsement and marketing campaigns and what people in the tech industry use are equivalent? I could tell you about these great Rockport boots I bought in Vegas… Winning/losing is binary and shallow. Can we do nuance and meaningful things instead?

  40. I also think that you can learn from competitors in defining more precisely your vision. It also helps people to adopt your product.
    When I worked at Microsoft I was often frustrated by the lack of explanations around the reasons we design such and such product and features. It is true that some effort was made for W8 but still the explanations were not obvious to everyone. Competition helps to have a bold objective and usually Microsoft is having an exhaustive long list of strength but it is to the consumer to try to find is way (which is good and difficult).

    Pierre-Yves

    January 14, 2013 at 10:52 pm

  41. @Marypcbuk If “getting caught” using a particular phone didn’t matter, particularly for celebrities, then MS wouldn’t be spending ad dollars on getting Jessica Alba using her Nokia 920 photos plastered all over the web. They (the blogs / people / them /us) do break things down to winning and losing, and it affects buying choices. Ignoring that can be dangerous, which is why I asked whether SS considered the consequences (not that it’s quite the same thing with him gone from MS, now)

    livesidewp

    January 14, 2013 at 8:51 pm

  42. Great post. I hope someone mails a bunch of copies to certain internal aliases at certain large software companies. He who has ears, let him hear.

    robichaux

    January 14, 2013 at 7:04 pm

  43. iPhone is a great product so is Windows Phone and Android. Its a world where parity, leaping ahead and falling behind the competition could happen at anytime, knowing your competition is key. If anything, the PC vs Mac / iPad argument has taught the world is no one is undefeatable and anyone can slip or stagnate. Today, its about picking on Microsoft …. tomorrow will be about, who knows.

    I wonder how many Apple employees (finance, ops) use Excel, Windows in parallel……

    Anonymous

    January 14, 2013 at 7:00 pm

  44. but Knip, that’s just the gotcha thing. It wouldn’t be “getting caught” if people (blogs? They’re just people) didn’t treat this as adversarial, as winning and losing, as assuming commitment and claiming meaning beyond competitive research (aka not being so blind as not to check out everything).

    the competitive research is hard, too. When you like a,product – because you made it or because it suits the way you work – it’s a lot of work to really use another product and make the most of it so you can really evaluate it fairly. Of course you have to do everything with it and “get caught” using it. Couldn’t we spend cycles on something more useful and interesting?

  45. Let’s not forget we made an investment in them a few years back. A reasonable person could assume we “I use one also ” that we are simply maximizing our investment.

    Al Perales

    January 14, 2013 at 4:44 pm

  46. If you read Jobs’ Bio, you’d know they OBSESSED about everyone else, they’d spend so much time on how other people were doing things, and what their products did.

    Yiz

    January 14, 2013 at 4:15 pm

  47. Steve,
    I love your prose.
    About the content: I was waiting for a fuller reply, you always have something great to say and it’s nice to hear things from an industry veteran.

    Yiz

    January 14, 2013 at 4:14 pm

  48. Great post, but I would disagree with being obsessed about your competition, seems very MS. I would be obsessed about your customers

    Michael

    January 14, 2013 at 4:10 pm

  49. I like the topic, not seeing the world around you (competition) is like the ostrich hiding its head in the sand. It is evident that all companies need to constantly know where the market is going – one lever that indicates that is the competition. In IT, constant innovation is needed and looking all data pivots is key.

    I like the fact that you called out ‘Common Mistakes’. It is probably more important to know ‘what not to do’ and falling into the trap doing things for the sake of it.

    >> When using a competitive product you need to use it like it was intended to be used by the designers.
    Not sure if I mis-understood your point, you can clarify if I did. I would use any product as a ‘user’ first – an enterprise IT ops manager, a developer, a consumer playing with a iPad or Win8 tablet. If I find that not intuitive, then I want to see how the designers actually got it wrong. and use that to correct my product or service.

    I also like your approaches section. IMO, the scenario driven methodology is most effective. For instance, knowing that folks use the phone in 1 hand, possibly while driving (I know its against the law :) ) and may need to “look up” their notes should be taken into account. One bad habit is for tweaking the scenarios to fit into a release schedule and/or scope, which defeats the purpose of defining it.

    I also think that one should be subsumed by competitor data, which you have also called out. Doing something that no one has done is key, so looking at competitor data as a way to define your unique value proposition (which you have mentioned) should be the strong motivation. Doing something that no one has done requires knowing what others are doing – which proves that competitor analysis is indeed a requirement :)

    It is also important to prune the set of competitors since that by itself is a huge time sink.

    Rama

    January 14, 2013 at 3:50 pm

  50. A myopic focus on your own company’s product and the extremely limited scenarios you will have successfully nailed in your own product is a fast way to become irrelevant in the marketplace. No matter how many people slap you on the back and tell you you’re awesome inside the hive of your own company it means nothing if the marketplace has voted your product, it’s messaging, the scenarios it addresses or the overal execution of it are not good enough compared to your competitor sitting on the shelf (virtual or real) next to you.

    I was a RIM 950 guy in 98-01 and loved it, switched to Microsoft tech because internally we couldn’t pat ourselves on the back more and WAS MISERABLE, then back to blackberry until iPhone came out and it was basically an IQ test you failed if you left a store with anything else.

    I have 5 iPhones for myself and family members but I also have an Android and Windows Phone because I refuse to not evaluate what is best. I’m lucky I’m in a position to do so as a software geek – but mobile is the future and i’m in the industry – how can you not take this seriously if it’s your passion / hobby / job all wrapped into one.

    I often do this with applications on the phones – if I want a type of app I’ll go and download (and pay for) 4 to 10 of them, use them each for a bit and delete all but the best one. WIth prices in the $1 to $5 range for most apps it is easy to justify if the best of the crop is truly better and I can have a real opinion if someone asks me.

    As I design and implement cloud software I’m doing my best to use at a minimum AWS and Azure equally where they are comparable or have an inherent advantage so I can find the right levels of abstraction that allow me to plug in a provider for one platform or another. it is allowing me to find the faults in both and improve my design and implementation to handle different sets of bottlenecks and weaknesses of each platform through a change of config settings…. these inflection points should allow me to take advantage of future services to address caching, messaging/queuing, VM management, etc. in a much less painful way if another major cloud player steps forward.

    Dave Quick

    January 14, 2013 at 3:43 pm

  51. Thank you for this perspective! A still enjoy reading your blogs. No need to slow down :)

    Kevin Hill

    January 14, 2013 at 3:42 pm

  52. You are so much better off outside ms. What is next?

    Jon

    January 14, 2013 at 3:37 pm

  53. First, I do appreciate your expanding on a single and probably not very significant item (reaction to your posting via iPhone) to take the opportunity to comment on a wider issue. However, as much as there are real reasons for using competitors’ products, there are also reasons for not falling into a “gotcha” trap. In many ways, damage done by a high-profile company leader getting “trapped” can outweigh the benefits of the data gathered. I know you don’t like to play the “snark” game, but learning the intricacies of not getting trapped can be a valuable lesson, too.
    In other words, it’s one thing to use an iPhone, it’s another to post comments from it labeled as such. Is that really what you intended? Did it add to your learning? Did you consider the consequences?

    Kip Kniskern (@kipkniskern)

    January 14, 2013 at 3:06 pm

  54. Excellent!

    Product/competitor “xenophobia” is, obviously, bad business and a limiting belief.

    Giovani di Gesu

    January 14, 2013 at 3:02 pm

  55. Great post.

    You have to know your enemy to beat him. You cannot expect to beat him if you don’t know what he does, or how he does it. Using a competitor product every day, understanding its strengths and weaknesses, is like being your own intelligence agent.

    Those who ignore competitors run enormous risks: I doubt Sony took Apple seriously until it was far too late, for example.

    Tom

    January 14, 2013 at 2:56 pm


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