Gaining a Competitive Advantage with a Solid Experience Vision

by Jared M. Spool

Let’s say your company manages to deliver a product or service that people really like, one that is unlike any other product or service out there. That’s a great feeling, but it won’t last long.

Moments after any successful new product or service is released, competitors emerge. They work to deliver products that carve away a piece of the emerging market. They’ll ship a competing design that is cheaper or better in some way. Customers will switch to their offered product. The competition will become fierce.

As UX designers, we get sucked into that competitive universe. No matter how much we resist, we’re pressured to change our designs to match what the competitors deliver.

When we’re in a competitive battle, we lose control of the design process. We’re told that feature parity—matching their product’s capabilities, feature for feature—is the top goal. “Customers won’t choose us if we don’t have what the competitors have.”

Competitive parity ultimately leads to experience rot

Adding features and functionality solely because a competitor has it in their product or service, inevitably increases the complexity of our designs. That complexity hurts our users’ experience. It drives up support costs. It makes the product harder to learn.

It’s impossible to avoid: feature-for-feature parity ultimately leads to experience rot. When we continually add new features, we make our design more complex. And when we increase complexity we reduce the quality of the user experience.

Experience rot creates an opening for a competitor to step in and deliver a better experience to our customers. That’s the ironic thing: the harder we work to match our competitor’s capabilities, the more we hurt our own competitiveness.

Avoiding experience rot

We can deliver market-leading products and services without becoming trapped in the competitive-parity rat race. To do that, we must understand how market competition plays out from the customer’s perspective.

The vast majority of the time, when customers have multiple products or services to choose from, they choose based on price or quality. Customers choose the product with the lowest price when they can’t see any differences otherwise.

Yet, customers don’t always choose on price. Customers, when given the right motivation, will choose a more expensive product or service because of a perceived benefit that comes from its quality.

Competing on price

Becoming competitive in price means finding a way to lower the costs of development and delivery. The lower the costs are to the company, the lower the price.

When you have the lowest costs, you can lower the price below what it costs your competitors to sell the same thing. Walmart usually has the lowest prices because they use their volume to negotiate lower costs of every product they sell. This means, if Walmart wanted to, they could charge less than the costs of their competitors to sell the same products.

If you do that long enough, you put your competitors out of business. They can’t afford to match your price because they would lose money on every sale.

Competing on quality

Competing on quality is different than competing on price. Competing on quality means you sell a product or service with qualities the customers find more desirable than what your competitors sell.

Competing on quality, for many years, has been the approach of luxury brands. People choose the luxury brand because it’s “worth it.” In those people’s minds, there’s some quality about the product or service that makes them feel better. That quality could be how the product is built, how the service is delivered, how it makes them feel, or even how it makes them look.

When people are choosing a product or service on quality, they aren’t looking at price as closely. If they feel it’s worth it, the customer will pay more.

Apple showed the world that a quality technology product was worth paying a higher price for millions of customers. Disney makes going to their theme parks worth it, even though they are far more expensive than any other competitor’s amusement parks.

Price has a limit that quality doesn’t

The problem with lowering your costs is you eventually reach the floor. Costs can only go down to zero. At some point, you can’t force your costs any lower than what they currently are.

When competing on price, the product or service becomes a commodity, like toothpaste, potato chips, or laundry soap. In the customer’s mind, it doesn’t matter who they buy the product from. They just want to buy it at the lowest price.

Increasing quality, on the other hand, has no ceiling. No matter how good a product or service is, it can always get better. If we can identify the qualities that our customers care about, we can win their purchase.

How car companies shifted their market from price to quality

In the 60s and 70s, the American automotive industry was competing on price. They worked hard to lower the costs of making cars, so they could keep their prices low.

That lowering of costs had the effect of making poor-quality cars. The cars would break down, were dangerous to drive, and were expensive to keep running.

Manufacturers like Toyota, Honda, Volvo, and Volkswagen saw an opening. They delivered better-quality cars to the American market. Their cars were better built, more reliable, and safer.

Car shoppers started to switch from price to quality in the 80s. Even though American manufacturers were keeping prices down, customers were choosing more expensive vehicles because they perceived those cars had better quality.

Quality is about experiential change

When we talk to customers about why they chose a more expensive product, they always describe their reason in terms of an experience they’ve had.

Their last car wasn’t reliable, and they wanted to pay more for a vehicle they could count on. Or they now have children, and they’re more concerned about their family’s safety. Or their job has changed, and they now need more storage space to carry equipment to various work sites.

The customers’ reasons follow a common formula: They tell a story about experiences they’ve had in the past, and then they tell a story about a future experience. The past experience had something the customers wanted to be changed, and the future experience describes what has changed about it.

This plays right into a UX designer’s secret weapon: we design experiences. Design is all about taking an experience that’s frustrating in some way and making it more delightful.

Experience Visions: What a more delightful future looks like

An experience vision is a story we tell everyone in our organization. That story is about the experience of using our products and services in the future. It answers the question “What if we could make our design more delightful for our users?”

For our team, the experience vision acts as a flag in the sand that everyone is marching towards. The flag is far away. It will take us a long time to get there.

A clear experience vision gives everyone the same flag to march towards. No matter how long it will take us to get there, we’ll get there together. And because each of us can see it, we can tell when each of our baby steps takes us closer or farther away from the flag. The experience vision guides us in the right direction.

The experience vision embodies stories that demonstrate the reasons why customers will switch to our future product or service. It does that by telling a story that matches the same type of stories we heard when we asked customers why they chose more expensive products.

Based on researching what users need

To create a compelling, competitive experience vision, we need to do our homework. Our team needs to build a deep awareness of what our users need from our products and services.

While researching and developing that deep awareness, we uncover where the current experience is frustrating and delighting our users. Where we’ve frustrated our users indicates our opportunities to improve the experience. Where the current product or service delights our users, we find important elements we need to preserve or expand upon in our future vision.

Go beyond just watching the users while they interact with our product or service. See the entirety of the experience. Learn what leads up to them interacting with our design. Ask what happens outside of our product or service. What do they do, once they are done with us?

Where do our users interact with co-workers, family members, or other people? Could our product or service help those other people, either directly or indirectly? Where do users interact with other products or services? Could integrating with those products or services make our users’ lives easier?

By getting a picture of the entire experience—not just the part that our product or service covers—we can see better ways to integrate into our users’ lives. It’s that deeper integration that offers opportunities for delivering something truly competitive.

Don’t pay attention to the competition’s products…

Many companies do a competitive analysis by studying the competitors’ products for the newest features. They’ll either access the products directly or use market analysts, such as Gartner or Forrester. These market analysts make money by selling detailed reports about what every competitor delivers in its products.

However, to build a solid experience vision, we want to shy away from studying the products of our competitors. Those competitors may just be guessing what customers need. Studying the features doesn’t tell us what users do with those features. It doesn’t tell us what users find frustrating about those features.

The competitors may not have done the research. They may not realize there are opportunities they completely missed.

It’s easy to do when you’re too are engaged in the game of feature parity. It’s a vicious downward spiral. If every company is only focused on reaching parity with their competitors, nobody is innovating or looking beyond the currently available features and functionality. Every product is working hard, only to look the same.

…Instead, pay close attention to the competition’s customers

Forming a deep awareness of the current competitor’s experience comes from studying the competition’s customers. That’s where the real competitive gold is found. When we meet with these potential customers, we can understand the nuance and subtlety of their experiences.

That understanding will reveal strong insights. Those insights could drive the competitor’s customers to switch to our product or service if we built something that truly embodied their needs.

We want to directly observe users and customers of our competitors’ designs. It’s from those observations that we’ll see places where the competitor has missed an opportunity. It’s a huge win when we find an opportunity that none of our competitors have addressed yet.

Also, when we watch our competitors’ users and customers, we see features and functionality our competitors have implemented well. We should note those instances closely. These insights can be useful in our experience vision.

Most importantly, we get the chance to ask these users and customers about what it is that makes the competitor’s products better. Why did they choose the competitor’s products over ours?

We don’t want their users just to tell us why they chose a competitor. We also want them to show us. Directly observing users always yields the best insights for our experience vision.

We construct our competitive experience vision by looking at what we’ve learned from the current experience of both ours and our competitors’ users. We can map out the user journey, highlighting what’s frustrating and what’s delightful to our users.

Then we ask the question, “What would make for a delightful experience across the entire journey?” The answer provides us with an experience vision that increases the competitiveness of our product or service.

What true market leadership looks like

The companies that chase their competitor’s features are always behind. They’re always trying to play catch-up to maintain parity.

When we do that, we are, at best, always guessing why the competitor thought a feature was a good idea. And we may never know if our guesses are correct. A company may only be copying a feature from another competitor just to maintain their own parity, not to meet their users’ actual needs. It’s an endless game that we can’t win.

Smart companies step away from playing the keep-up game with their competitors. They design their products and services to meet the true unmet needs of their customers. They solve customer problems that no other company is solving.

Organizations that are true market leaders don’t look at their competitors to stay ahead. Instead, they look deeply at their customers and users. That’s how they consistently deliver the best-designed products and services.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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