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Design to win: How I use the power of competition to unlock better design
The strategic use of competitive, complementary, and comparative research
Hey designers 👋
This week I want to talk about using the power of comparison to create better design outcomes across an organization.
How might we surface the most “good design”?
I’ve spent the last half-decade at cyber-security startups ranging in size from 40 people up past 1,000. These are highly technical, engineering-driven, software companies that require design input to shape their product, but that are very much not in the design business. They are in the cyber-security business.
Consequently, the size of the product design teams has been small: ranging from 1 to 8 people. While on the other hand, the size of the engineering and sales teams has numbered in the tens to hundreds.
With so few designers relative to the total number of people making design decisions, it’s easy to feel like the design is constantly slipping away from the designers’ intent. While I struggled with that dynamic at first, over time I expanded my perspective from asking just “how can I help the design team make good designs?” to “how can I help the broader team surface more good designs more often?”
The trouble is that since those other people are not designers they often don’t have a strong point of reference for what good design looks like and so it can be tricky to figure out what resources will help them.
The power of comparison
Interestingly, the most reliable and approachable tool I’ve found is providing clear and consistent “competitive” design resources.
I put competitive in quotes because I include a spectrum of resources in my comparative toolkit that range from direct competitors to complementary software products, to more abstract pattern comparisons.
While I may never achieve my quest of teaching every coworker to critique designs like Dieter Rams, people are instinctively great at comparing things when they are put side-by-side. Even if they don’t have the words to express exactly why one design is better or worse, most people will have a feeling.
And so for the rest of this piece, I want to break down how I curate my competitive resources and how I queue them up for different audiences to direct them toward better design.
My “competitive” toolkit
Figma audit file
The core of my competitive toolkit is an ongoing audit file in Figma that I curate and maintain like a library.
I organize the pages around the 3 main categories I mentioned above:
Direct competitors: the companies we go up against in sales deals
Complementary software products: In my case, other enterprise software
Comparative experiences: a wide net of common software patterns
I start with direct competitors at the top of the file and then move progressively further away from that competitive core. Next, I venture outwards to the broader complementary set. And then finally I include the more abstract pattern-based comparisons.
I date each page so that I remember the point in time it reflects for that software and I leave copious notes directly on the screenshots within the file.
For the designers on the team, the Figma file is often enough.
But for others outside the design team, I maintain basic documentation on the team wiki so that they can get a high-level view in a space that’s more familiar to them.
These days I’m able to embed individual pages from the Figma file within this document which makes it easy for people to poke around without having to switch contexts.
While the Figma file is comprehensive in what it includes, I’ve noticed that I tend to reach for a few key screens routinely in the context of presenting design strategy.
So, it’s simple, but I keep those common screens prepped and ready in slide format to make it faster for me to reference when the next presentation rolls around.
I’m sure some of them will eventually need to be retired and replaced, but for the most part, they’re stable enough to rely upon from month to month.
The right comparisons for the right people
While designers are adept at traversing the layers of abstraction from competitive to comparative others tend to get hung up on the area where they direct most of their attention day-to-day.
This isn’t their fault.
It’s just a manifestation of inherent cognitive biases that we need to account for.
Sharing with engineering & product
These teams spend most of their time focused internally, crafting the product itself.
They care deeply about the product they’re making and so it’s easy for them to fall victim to the Ikea effect: the cognitive bias in which one more highly values an object that they have made themselves. To offset this bias, I’ve found that a jolt of direct competitive comparison is very effective.
In my recent presentation to the engineering org at my company, I wanted to inspire a renewed focus on quality and craft. I talked about some high-level design principles, of course, but for this audience, I kept direct competitors front and center since they otherwise are not.
We’ve improved our product significantly in the past year, but the simple exercise of holding up our product next to theirs for comparison made it much more clear for the team that we still have room to improve. We may believe that the solution we’ve crafted is great, but our work is mostly for naught unless we can answer this question in the affirmative:
Are we at least as good as our competitor?
If not, keep refining the design until we are.
Sharing with sales & marketing
On the other hand, these teams spend most of their time focused externally on the competition. They care deeply about keeping our company in good standing in the marketplace and thus constantly have to react to the new experiences that enter it.
From this point of view, it’s easy to fall victim to the ‘Appeal to novelty’ bias: “a fallacy in which one prematurely claims that an idea or proposal is correct or superior, exclusively because it is new and modern”.
To help offset this, I’ve found it useful to highlight two points of comparison:
First, show our product vs. our competitors and talk about ways we are using design to directly close gaps that our customers consider table stakes. This helps tone down the reactionary response the appeal to novelty can invoke.
Second, share the successes of companies making complementary products that might help us carve a new path. This helps open up the bigger picture design opportunities that exist when we look past our narrowly defined market.
So, the comparative question I posed to the engineering team (“are we at least as good as the competitor?”) evolves into something more akin to “are we moving in a direction that might make our competitors ask if they’re at least as good as us?”
How do you use competitive and comparative resources in your design practice?
What other tools do you like for helping your non-designers make better design decisions?
Let me know in the comments or over on Twitter!
Until next time ✌️