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The Competition In Product Design

“The Competition.”

Just the word itself conjures up an image in the mind of intimidating, omnipresent, dark forces, lacking any clear form, lying in wait & perpetually plotting to destroy your fragile little business with a mere swipe of its hand.

We talk about The Competition a lot, but what role does it actually play in product design? And what role should it in fact play?

Every business plan says you need an in-depth analysis of The Competition. So you throw in a few graphs. Plot some strengths & weaknesses. Frame your business in relation to a few other businesses.

Every product feature is framed in relation to The Competition as well: What have they done to solve this problem? What can we learn from it? What should we then build?

Everyone therefore places The Competition at the heart of major strategic decisions & product decisions.

But… why?

What role does it really play?

Is The Competition a point of reference to copy? When we build a new feature is it just to catch up with them? To make sure we offer at least as many things as the guy next door? Does it constitute a sort of feature scrapbook where we pick & choose what we think will work for us?

Or is The Competition a source to draw inspiration? To get us thinking? To think about product decisions in context?

And if so, then why do we tend to limit ourselves to The Competition?

When, in fact, did your last great idea — a great leap in your product’s development — come from looking at The Competition?

Does such a flash of inspiration ever come from looking at what is already out there?

More likely, it came from a product in some other industry. One seemingly unrelated, yet surprisingly suitable for your own.

Because great ideas, those great leaps, tend to come from panning across seemingly unrelated topics & allowing your subconscious to draw the dots, to find a pattern where other see no pattern.

And many designers realise this. They use inspiration from elsewhere. They deliberately expose themselves to new industries, new technologies, new ideas.

Yet it’s under-valued.

Because the emphasis is always on The Competition. We are pushed to think about The Competition. To act in terms of The Competition. What they are doing. What they may have planned.

And, sometimes, we spend so much time watching what the guys across form us are up to that we forget to look ahead. We forget where we are going. What the point of it all is. What the vision was in the fist place.

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