Google Assistant is about to get better at controlling your favorite media apps. Google this week added a verification testing framework to the Media Controller Test, a change that will let developers test media playback on Android devices. Together with the Android MediaSessions APIs, Google Assistant voice interactions and other media should become more reliable.
In this interview, Joe Woodham discusses recruiting for a tech start-up, finding your niche, and starting your own business.
Joe is known as the “intro guy” at Torii Recruitment, the specialist IT recruitment firm he founded in 2012. Finding a good fit in IT recruitment, he says, is a more nuanced challenge than just finding someone with the right skills.
In one sentence how would you describe yourself?
I’m highly driven and passionate about business. However, I focus on maintaining balance in all aspects of my life. I love to enjoy myself, challenge myself and grow as a person.
In one sentence, how would describe your career?
My career has been a constant progression in terms of self-development and learning new skills. I’ve been lucky to fall into what I do and I’ve enjoyed the challenges along the way.
In one sentence, how would you describe your business Torii Recruitment?
Torii is agile and able to move quickly, enabling us to understand the market and our clients’ pain points and deliver a high-touch service in a skill-short market.
Finding your niche
During your talk in the WeTeachMe Master’s Series, you mentioned finding a niche and then building a business around filling it. How did you determine IT recruitment was the correct niche for your business?
I started my career in IT Recruitment and it wasn’t IT being the niche. The niche was actually working with specific skill sets within IT that the market was experiencing a shortage of.
Working with companies, understanding their pain points and looking at where the market was heading, I was able to leverage the skills I’d built to deliver a service the market and my clients needed.
You also spoke of your big learning curve when starting a business. Can you share some of them here?
When I started a business, I was good at IT Recruitment. However, when I started working for myself I quickly realized there was a lot more that was happening in the background. I had to start working on building a brand/image in the market which people knew me/Torii for. There were so many new things I had to master and make decisions on that I had taken for granted — small things like the software I used, the accounting system we used, and how I sent an invoice. I basically had to learn very quickly, and fill all the gaps to be able to run a business.
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No, it’s not a clickbait title and yes, starting with $100 can get you an actual running store.
In this article I’ll go through every step you need to take to get your store up and running and explain the costs involved.
Granted, to keep the costs down you’ll do all the heavy lifting but hey, nothing worthwhile ever comes easy so let’s dive right in…
1. The Product
It might feel odd for some that I would go about explaining how to launch a $100 store and start with the product but truth is, the site, domain, logo everything needs to be tailored to fit the product you are trying to sell. The success or failure of your business will rely on your ability to select the correct product and the right market so don’t skip over this step.
Here’s a quick way to validate your idea: Go to Google Trends and type in a word that describes your product, eg: “phone case” or “headlights”. You’ll see in a graph below how much interest there is in a particular region like the US. Keep in mind you can also see the results of Worldwide searches but if you are going to target a particular region I’d advise you look there. Look for trends going up or have a steady above 40 interest. That’s what you are looking for.
A couple of years ago I launched a business selling baby and toddler related toys, clothes, etc. When I looked at Google Trends I remember doing around 40 different searches and seeing what my audience was looking for to get a proper understanding of what my target audience looks for and what types of products I need to add to the store.
A second, yet just as important step here is to look for what your competition does, how they address their customers and look for negative feedback from their users. See what they do wrong and aim to improve on those aspects specifically.
2. The Domain
So you found your product and market. Good for you. Now you need to get the domain that will bring in your flock of loyal customers and though it might sound irrelevant, the domain can really hurt you if you don’t get the right one.
So what makes a good domain name?
Good question. It’s hard to decide if you want to get something brandable or get some keywords in the domain name. If you end up using keywords in the domain name you’d give your viewers a clear idea of they’ll be getting when seeing your store but what if you want to pivot? What if you find out 6 months in, that the store is selling more than just whatever your keyword in the domain is. If your aim is to build a strong brand, then by all means, put your brand name in the domain.
In regards to the TLD (Top-level domain) you choose, get a “.com” if your audience is worldwide, and go local if you are targeting a specific country. It’s as simple as that.
Other than that, keep your domain name short, be unique and unless you have no other choice, avoid hyphens.
As far as providers go I usually stick to Godaddy.com or namecheap.com, both are great services with good service and solid support.
3. The Platform (Self-Hosted Solution vs SaaS)
I could probably talk for the next hour on why you should pick one CMS or another, why you can go serverless or use a traditional hosting or even if you should go for a SaaS option or not, but I won’t go into that much detail. Instead, I’ll touch briefly on each subject and only talk about the main “players” in each category.
We’ve seen, the past few years, an explosion of E-commerce SaaS options, some better than others yet the fact that almost every week you hear about a new SaaS in this segment makes me think there’s still room for innovation.
What are the benefits of having a SaaS? Basically, you get to launch your store exponentially faster. You basically signup, add your products, set up payments and delivery options and you are good to go.
Before I get swarmed by angry mobs yelling at me for not talking about their favorite e-commerce platform provider, I want to point out that I’ll limit this article to only two SaaS platforms, that I think, are different enough to give you a wider perspective on how far you can actually go choosing an e-commerce SaaS.
Number 1: the king of e-commerce SaaS: Shopify, an easy to use platform that will make sense for most people needing a simple shop with no need for a whole lot of customization. There’s a ton of support for it, themes, plugins and customizing your shop is really easy.
Number 2: a newer player in the SaaS space, yet special: Blugento, a simple to use SaaS, similar to Shopify in this regards, the difference being that behind the curtains, there a fully functioning Magento platform doing the heavy lifting. (I’ll talk about Magento as a self-hosted platform below.) The main benefit of Blugento is the scalability of the store, something lacking from all other providers and an aspect that’s incredibly important.
Self-hosted solutions are dime a dozen and they differ from one another by a number of differences but perhaps the most important one is the community surrounding it. This is a crucial factor for you and your store. Since you are reading a “$100 e-commerce site” article you probably can’t rely on a big team of in-house developers that you can breed, educate, and have lying around until that inevitable time when your site will go down.
And it will. It will crash in the most unexpected way at the most inconvenient time…
Cost: around $50/month
…that’s why I’m going to only talk about the two biggest platforms, Magento and WooCommerce. They are both immensely popular with crazy big communities around them, testing, developing and pushing the platform to the limits.
Number 1:Magento has been around since 2008 and it quickly became a favorite amongst developers even if, at the time, there were bigger and more popular e-commerce CMS. Magento is not going to be for everyone, hosting costs are going to be higher, development is more complicated but in return, you get a versatile store with a lot of room for customization and it scales gracefully so when your business grows, your store can grow with it handling hundreds of thousands of products without a problem.
Number 2:WooCommerce is on the other side of the spectrum, easy to install, development is easy and you get a ton of free plugins and themes. Since it runs on top of WordPress development is cheap and it’s relatively easy to find developers to work on the store adding extra features. Compared to Magento, the management of inventory and orders is faster and easier but after about 50K products added to your store, you’ll have to think about upgrading to something like Magento.
Both self-hosted options described above will need a hosting company before they can see the light of day. I personally recommend going with hostgator.com or siteground.com but there are a ton of great choices out there.
Installing either platform is easy as both hosting providers offer tools for installing Magento or WordPress through a simple point and click wizard. No more messing with the console, creating databases and editing confusing PHP files.
Cost: $0 for the platforms, between $10 – $25 / month for hosting
I’d be remiss not to mention serverless in this discussion as this is something that has been talked a lot about in the recent months and we’ve seen big names in E-commerce move their operations to the cloud, companies like Zalora.
Zalora moved everything to AWS, website, mobile apps, warehouse operations, everything is running off of EC2, S3, Lambda, and RedShift. They are the biggest retailer in Asia with over 20 million users and yet, their entire infrastructure development team is composed of 3 people, which for anyone understanding the difficulties running such a large website can say it’s amazing!
This is done through AWS Lambda, a service launched by Amazon that lets you upload small pieces of code that work as microservices, called functions—hence the term Functions as a Service or FaaS. They basically do a very specific task that your website triggers, returning a simple result. The technology behind it promises to allow developers to build websites and apps without having to worry about the backend or the infrastructure, all while keeping the costs at an all-time low.
There are three big reasons for switching to a serverless framework: cost, development speed and scalability. There are companies saving tens of thousands of dollars a month after switching to serverless and an average of 77% faster delivery speed of the products. Check out this case study on how serverless saves money in comparison to traditional hosting solutions.
Poor website performance is now measured in terms of lost customers and revenues
– Tom Lounibos, CEO, SOASTA
If I’d were to say branding is important I’d be grossly understating it. I will say that a solid logo and branding will make up the foundation of your successful store. So how can you build one that reflects your company’s image while still looking professional? Well, the easy way would be to throw money at it, but we don’t roll like that, so we’ll be doing this ourselves.
The first place to start is to look for inspiration and you do this by going through design and branding websites looking at the current trends, tutorials and any tips or tricks that will help you in this endeavor. My suggestion would be to start with sites like hipsthetic.com or designoholic.com and then try to expand your search to Pinterest.
Alright, you now have an idea of what you need but you aren’t going to pay a couple of hundred dollars per month for Photoshop because that will blow the entire budget we’ve set for ourselves. So what we do is we sign up with Canva.com. It’s free and it will get you started quite fast. After watching a 1-minute tutorial you’ll be ready to start creating your first logo.
Don’t stop at one. Make two or three and show them to a couple of friends to get feedback. After picking the winner get back to Canva.com and make a few more: one that has transparency; one that is all black; and one that is all white. You can use the color one for your website and the rest you’ll use to watermark catalog images (I don’t really recommend using watermarks on product images but if you absolutely have to, place them in a corner somewhere) business cards, social media posts, etc. You get the point.
5. First Marketing Steps
Alright, we almost made it. There’s only one little step ahead of us. And by little I actually mean the most important thing you’ll end up doing for your business.
Let’s start with something basic: on page SEO, sounds easy enough, right? Well, not exactly. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to SEO and I won’t have time to go into much detail but I will let you with this awesome infographic that will teach you pretty much all you need.
You probably know this by now, SM is a tool that you can leverage to get in front of the right customers. Start posting on a regular basis but be careful not to alienate your readers with overzealous posts promoting products. I recommend people use the 8 + 2 rule. You provide 8 pieces of useful content, regardless if it’s on your site or not. Content like tutorials, tips and tricks, peer reviews, etc. Don’t be afraid to test the water with this strategy, find out what your users like and with that type of content they interact and start sharing.
This will be your bread and butter for the next few months. It’s crucial to have a blog where you can share your experiences and knowledge with your peers. As part of the content marketing efforts, you’ll have to do guest posts. Find like minded people who own blogs and start pitching ideas for guest posts. Most blog owners are fairly easy to reach and communicate with so I highly advise you do this. Guest blogging on small blogs is a great way to reach new audiences but perhaps even better than that would be to go on Medium.com. It’s a great platform to publish content, with a ton of viewers, so I’d strongly suggest you try it out.
So if my math is correct after getting set up with your website domain and host you’d be left with $30 to $40. I’d advise you drop a few dollars in Facebook ads. It’s easy to do, you don’t need to spend money on a consultant and Facebook has a bunch of tutorials on this. What I’d suggest you do is select the best products you have in your store and create a carousel. Have at least 4 products in there. Select a small audience with the demographic that fits your niche and place a $5 limit on the ad spending. You’ll have around a week to tweak the ad and if you have the right combination of audience and product, chances are you’ll have made your first sell by now.
The Grand Total
If you do the math, going with a self-hosted solution will cost around $50 to host ( for a 5 or 6 month period), add to that $ 10 for the domain and you get to $ 60. You’ll have to host it yourself, do all the maintenance and configuration but you get to have about 6 months to make up your investment.
Going with a SaaS will cost around $60 but you will be done and ready to go in a couple of days which is great if you don’t want to spend time learning to code or set up a CMS. The downside here is that your $50 will cover only that first month which adds to the pressure of making a few sells (which shouldn’t be a problem).
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This document shows how to deploy a WordPress site and phpMyAdmin application using the ROS template with a single click.
Many users do not have in-house technical capabilities to build and manage a website. They have teams who can manage the content but not the infrastructure that comes along with it. Currently available solutions are suitable for a limited period when the requirements are basic, but as soon as they require customization, high availability, and scalability, additional solutions supporting scaling are needed.
The ROS stack template (WordPressCluster-phpMyAdmin.ros) discussed in this document helps address the high availability and scalability requirements of such users. With a single click, it creates the entire VPC stack, Server Load Balancer, Auto Scaling, ECS, RDS, and other instances, deploys WordPress and phpMyAdmin, and configures Auto Scaling to guarantee that any new instances can be added and configured without manual intervention.
Availability of an OSS bucket.
RAM user with read and write access to the OSS bucket.
Understanding of ROS and ability to create ROS stack templates and stacks from the console.
End users, who access the website hosted on WordPress through a URL that is resolved to a Public Server Load Balancer instance.
WordPress is hosted on Apache web servers. The servers have their document root set to /wwwroot which is on an OSS bucket shared across the web servers using OSSFS (a FUSE-based file system officially provided by Alibaba Cloud).
RAM users who have the access permission of the OSS bucket can mount the OSS bucket on the ECS instance.
The RDS for MySQL database holds the WordPress content and is accessed from the web server over its intranet connect string.
System administrator, who can access to the VPC environment through an SSH logon to the JumpBox (bastion host).
The JumpBox has an elastic IP and is accessed over the Internet.
The access through JumpBox is to manage the instances inside the VPC.
phpMyAdmin is installed on the JumpBox and is accessible over the Internet.
In this way, the administrators can administer the RDS database.
Content managers, who can access the WordPress Management console through the Internet.
Access to all these services can be controlled by security groups and can be configured as per the environment.
Note: In the template, the ZoneId is set as eu-central-1a, and the ImageId is m-gw8efmfk0y184zs0m0aj. You can modify the ZoneId and the ImageId according to the zones and images supported in the ROS console. Log on to the ROS console, click ECS Instance Information, select a region, and click ECS Zone or ECS Image to view all the zones or images supported in this region.
Based on the WordPressCluster-phpMyAdmin.ros stack template, the system creates the VPC, Server Load Balancer, VSwitch, NAT Gateway, Security Groups, and ECS instances for JumpBox, Elastic IP for JumpBox, Auto Scaling for ECS instances, and RDS instance.
It takes the following input parameters to make the resource stack generic enough to be deployable for any user in any region.
According to the template, the system installs httpd, mysql-client, PHP, OSSFS, phpMyAdmin, and WordPress on the JumpBox and also configures them in the UserData section of the ALIYUN::ECS::Instance resource.
The following is a snippet of the UserData section of the JumpBox.
The UserData section deploys WordPress on the OSS bucket which can be mounted to the web servers created using Auto Scaling. This guarantees that the web servers have the updated content from the document root.
The web servers are started through Auto Scaling. The installation and configuration of httpd, PHP, and ossutil, mounting of DocumentRoo, and starting of services are done in the UserData section of the Auto Scaling configuration.
The following is a snippet of the UserData section of the web server Auto Scaling configuration.
Early in my career when I worked at agencies and later at Microsoft on Edge, I heard the same lament over and over: “Argh, why doesn’t Edge just run on Blink? Then I would have access to ALL THE APIs I want to use and would only have to test in one browser!”
Let me be clear: an Internet that runs only on Chrome’s engine, Blink, and its offspring, is not the paradise we like to imagine it to be.
As a Google Developer Expert who has worked on Microsoft Edge, with Firefox, and with the W3C as an Invited Expert, I have some opinions (and a number of facts) to drop on this topic. Let’s get to it.
What is a browser, even?
Let’s clear up some terminology.
Popular browsers you know today include Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Edge, but in the past we’ve also had such greats as NCSA Mosaic and Netscape Navigator. Whichever browser you use daily (I use Firefox, thanks for asking) is only an interface layer wrapped around a browser engine. All your bookmarks, the forward and backward arrows, that URL bar thingy—those aren’t the browser. Those are the browser’s interface. Often the people who build the browser’s engine never even touch the interface!
Except for Edge, all of these engines are open source, meaning anybody could grab one, wrap it in a new interface, and boom, release their own browser—maybe with a different (perhaps better) user experience—and that’s just what some browsers are! Oculus Browser, Brave, Vivaldi, Samsung Internet, Amazon’s Silk, and Opera all run on Blink. We call them “Chromium-based browsers”—Chromium is Google’s open source project from which Chrome and its engine emerged.
But what’s inside a browser engine? MOAR ENGINES! Every browser engine is comprised of several other engines:
A layout and rendering engine (often so tightly coupled that there’s no distinction) that calculates how the page should look and handles any paints, renders, and even animations.
And you know what? Another way browsers are like living things is that they evolve.
We have three major lineages of engines right now:
WebKit and Blink (Blink originally being a fork of WebKit) running Safari, Chrome, and Opera
Gecko running Firefox
EdgeHTML (a fork of Trident, aka MSHTML) running Microsoft Edge
Each is very different and has different strengths and weaknesses. Each could pull the Web in a different direction alone: Firefox’s engine has multithreaded processing for rendering blazing fast graphics. Edge’s engine has the least abstraction from the operating system, giving it more direct access to system resources—but making it a Windows-only browser engine as a result. And Chrome’s Blink has the most web developers testing for it. (I’ll get back to why this is a “feature” in a little bit.)
It is hard to imagine any one entity justifying the hours and expense it would take to spin up a browser engine from scratch today. Even the current three engine families are evolutions of engines that were there from the very start of the Internet. They’ve evolved piecemeal alongside us, growing to meet our needs.
Right now, the vast majority of traffic on the Web is happening on Chrome, iOS Safari, or some other permutation of Blink or WebKit.
Branches, renovations, and gut jobs
Some developers would say that WebKit and Blink were forked so long ago that the two are practically completely different browser engines now, no longer able to share contributions. That may be true to a point. But while a common chimney swift and a ruby-throated hummingbird are completely different animals in comparison to each other, when compared to the other animal families, they are still very much birds. Neither’s immediate offspring are likely to manifest teeth, hands, or tails in the near future. Neither WebKit nor Blink have the processing features that Gecko and EdgeHTML have been building up to for years.
Other developers might point out that Microsoft Edge is supposedly a “complete rewrite” of Internet Explorer. But the difference between a “complete gut job” and a mere “renovation” can be a matter of perspective. EdgeHTML is a fork of Internet Explorer’s Trident engine, and it still carries much of Trident’s backlog with it.
So these are the three browser engines we have: WebKit/Blink, Gecko, and EdgeHTML. We are unlikely to get any brand new bloodlines in the foreseeable future. This is it.
If we lose one of those browser engines, we lose its lineage, every permutation of that engine that would follow, and the unique takes on the Web it could allow for.
And it’s not likely to be replaced.
Imagine a planet populated only by hummingbirds, dolphins, and horses. Say all the dolphins died out. In the far, far future, hummingbirds or horses could evolve into something that could swim in the ocean like a dolphin. Indeed, ichthyosaurs in the era of dinosaurs looked much like dolphins. But that creature would be very different from a true dolphin: even ichthyosaurs never developed echolocation. We would wait a very long time (possibly forever) for a bloodline to evolve the traits we already have present in other bloodlines today. So, why is it ok to stand by or even encourage the extinction of one of these valuable, unique lineages?
We have already lost one.
We used to have four major rendering engines, but Opera halted development of its own rendering engine Presto before adopting Blink.
Three left. Spend them wisely.
By our powers combined…
Some folks feel that if a browser like Microsoft Edge ran on Blink, then Microsoft’s engineers could help build a better Blink, contributing new features upstream for all other Chromium browsers to benefit from. This sounds sensible, right?
But remember Blink was forked from WebKit. Now there are WebKit contributors and Blink contributors, and their contributions don’t port one to one. It’s not unlikely that a company like Microsoft would, much like Samsung and Occulus, want to do things with the engine differently from Google. And if those differences are not aligned, the company will work on a parallel codebase and not contribute that work upstream. We end up with a WebKit and a Blink—but without the deep differentiation that comes from having a codebase that has been growing with the Internet for decades.
It’s is a nice idea in theory. But in practice, we end up in a similar pickle—and with less “genetic variety” in our ecosystem of browser engines.
Competition is about growing, not “winning”
I’m a fan of competition. Competing with other cartoonists to make better comics and reach a larger audience got me to where I am today. (True story: got my start building websites as a cartoonist building her own community site, newsletter, and shopping cart.) I like to remind people that competition isn’t about annihilating your competitors. If you did, you’d stagnate and lose your audience: see also Internet Explorer 6.
Thinking it had Won the Internet, Microsoft turned its attention to other fronts, and Internet Explorer didn’t advance much. When the iPhone came, Apple focused on its profitable apps marketplace and cut efforts to support Flash—the Web’s most app-like interaction platform. Apps gave content creators a way to monetize their efforts with something other than an advertising model. Advertising being Google’s bread and butter, the Big G grew concerned as the threat of a walled garden of apps only using the Internet for data plumbing loomed. Microsoft, meanwhile, was preoccupied with building its own mobile OS. So Google did two things: Android and Chrome.
Chrome promised a better, faster browsing experience. It was barebones, but Google even went all out and got famous (in my circles at least) cartoonist Scott McCloud to make a comic explaining the browser’s mission to users. With Chrome’s omnipresence on every operating system and Android phone, its dev tools modeled off Firefox’s beloved Firebug extension, and increasing involvement in specs, Chrome not only shook Internet Explorer out of its slumber, it was damn near threatening to kill off every other browser engine on the planet!
Pruning the great family tree of browsers (or collection of bushes as it were) down to a single branch smacks of fragile monoculture. Monocultures are easily disrupted by environmental and ecological challenges—by market and demographic changes. What happens when the next threat to the Web rears its head, but we don’t have Firefox’s multithreading? Or Microsoft Edge’s system integration? Will we be able to iterate fast enough without them? Or will we look to the Chrome developers to do something and pray that they have not grown stagnant as Google turned, like Microsoft did, to attend to other matters after “winning the Web.”
It is ironic that the browser Google built to keep the Web from losing to the apps model is itself monopolizing web development much the same way Internet Explorer 6 did.
It’s good to be king (of the jungle)
I promised I’d get back to “user base size as a feature.” Having the vast majority of the web development community building and testing for your platform is a major competitive advantage. First off, you’re guaranteed that most sites are going to work perfectly in your browser—you won’t have to spend so much time and effort tapping Fortune 500 sites on the shoulder about this One Weird Bug that is causing all their internal users to switch to your competitor browser and never come back. A downward spiral of fewer users leading to less developer testing leading to fewer users begins that is hard to shake.
It also makes it much easier to propose new specifications that serve your parent company’s goals (which may or may not serve the web community’s goals) and have that large community of developers build to your implementation first without having to wait for other browsers to catch up. If a smaller browser proposes a spec that no one notices and you pick it up when you need it, people will remember it as being your effort, continuing to build your mindshare whether intentionally or not.
This creates downward pressure on the competition, which simply doesn’t have or cannot use the same resources the biggest browser team has at its disposal. It’s a brutally efficient method, whether by design or accident.
Is it virtuous? At the individual contributor level, yes. Is it a vicious cycle by which companies have driven their competition to extinction by forcing them to spend limited resources to catch up? Also yes. And having legions of people building for just your platform helps.
All the awesome, well-meaning, genuinely good-hearted people involved—from the Chrome team to web developers—can throw their hands up and legitimately say, “I was just trying to build the Web forward!” while contributing to further a corporate monopoly.
Chrome has the most resources and leads the pack in building the Web forward to the point that we can’t be sure if we’re building the Web we want… or the Web Google wants.
There was a time when Microsoft bailed out Apple as it was about to sink. This was not because Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were friends—no, Microsoft needed Apple to succeed so there would still be operating system competition. (No business wants to be seen as a monopoly!)
But consider, for a moment, that Apple had died. What would personal computers be like today if we’d only had Linux and Windows left standing? What would mobile computing look like if Apple hadn’t been around to work on the iPhone?
Yes, it’s easier to develop and test in only one browser. I’m sure IT professionals would have loved to only support one kind of machine. But variety creates opportunity for us as developers in the long run. Microsoft saving Apple lead to apps which challenged the Web which gave us Chrome and the myriad of APIs Google is charging ahead with. If at any point in this chain of events someone had said, “Meh, it’s so much easier if we all use the same thing,” we wouldn’t have the careers—or the world—that we have now.
Develop in more than one browser. Test in more than one browser. Use more than one browser.
You are both consumer and producer. You have a say in how the future plays out.
In this article, I will introduce the subject of competitive analysis, which is basically a method to determine how well your competitors are performing. My aim is to introduce the subject to those of you who are new to the concept. It should be useful if you are new to product design, UX, interaction or digital design, or if you have experience in these fields but have not performed a competitive analysis before.
No prior knowledge of the topic is needed because I’ll be explaining what the term means and how to perform a competitive analysis as we go. I am assuming some basic knowledge of the design process and UX research, but I’ll provide plenty of practical examples and reference links to help with any terms and concepts you might be unfamiliar with.
Note:If you are a beginner in UX and interaction design, it would be good to know the basics of the design process and to know what is UX research (and the methods used for UX research) before diving into the article’s main topic. Please read the next section carefully because I’ve added reference links to help you get started.
Competitive Analysis, Service Design Cycle, Five-Stages Design Process
If you are a UX designer, then you might be aware of the service design cycle. This cycle contains four stages: discover, explore, test and listen. Each one of these stages has multiple research methods, and competitive analysis is part of the exploration. Susan Farrell has very helpfully distinguished different UX research methods and activities that can be performed for your project. (You can check this detailed segregation in her “UX Research Cheat Sheet”.)
The image below shows the four steps and the most commonly used methods in these steps.
Please don’t confuse the five-stages design process with the service design cycle. Basically, they serve the same purpose in the design thinking process, but are explained in different styles. Here is a brief explanation of what these five stages contain:
This stage involves gaining a clear understanding of the problem you are trying to solve from the user’s point of view.
This stage involves defining the correct statement for the problem you are trying to solve, using the knowledge you gained in the first stage.
In this stage, you can generate different solution ideas for the problem.
Basically, a prototype is an attempt to give your solution some form so that it can be explained to others. For digital products, a prototype could be a wireframe set created using pen and paper or using a tool such as Balsamiq or Sketch, or it could be a visual design prototype created using a tool such as Sketch, Figma, Adobe XD or InVision.
Testing involves validating and evaluating all of your solutions with the users.
You can perform UX research at any stage. Many articles and books are available for you to learn more about this design process. “Five Stages in the Design Thinking Process” by Rikke Dam and Teo Siang is one of my favorite articles on the topic.
According to Nielsen Norman Group’s “User Experience Careers” survey report, 61% of UX professionals prefer to do the competitive analysis for their projects. But what exactly is competitive analysis? In simple language, competitive analysis is nothing but a method to determine how your competitors are performing, what they are offering and how well they are doing it.
Sometimes, competitive analysis is referred as competitive usability evaluation.
Why Should You Do A Competitive Analysis?
There are many reasons to do a competitive analysis, but I think the most important reason is that it helps us to understand the rights and wrongs of our own product or service.
Using competitive analysis, you can make decisions based on knowledge of what is currently working well for your users, rather than based on guesses or intuition. In doing competitive analysis, you can also identify risks in your product or service and use those insights to add value to it.
Recently, I was working on a project in which I did a competitive analysis of a feature (collaborative meeting note-taking) that a client wanted to introduce in their web app. Note-taking is not exactly a new or highly innovative thing, so the biggest challenge I was facing was to make this functionality simpler and easier to handle, because the product I was working on was in the very early stages of development. The feature, in a nutshell, was to create a simple text document where some interactive action items could be added.
Because a ton of apps are out there that allow you to create simple text documents, I decided to do a competitive analysis for this functionality. (I’ll explain this process in more detail later in the section “Five Easy Steps to Do a Competitive Analysis”.)
How To Find The Right Competitors?
Basically, there are two types of competitors: direct and indirect. As a UX designer, your role is to study the designs of these competitors.
Jaime Levy gives very good definitions of direct and indirect competitors in her book UX Strategy. You can learn more about competitive analysis (and types of competitors) in chapter 4 of the book, “Conducting Competitive Research”.
Direct competitors are the ones who offer the same, or a very similar, set of features to your current or future customers, which means they are solving a similar problem to the one you are trying to solve, for a customer base that you are targeting as well.
Indirect competitors are the ones who offers a similar set of features but to a different customer segment; or, they target your exact customer base without offering the exact same set of features, which means indirect competitors are solving the same problem but for a different customer base, or are solving the same problem but offer a different solution.
You can search for these types of competitors online (by doing a simple web search), or you can directly ask your current and potential customers what they are using already. You can also look for your direct and indirect competitors on websites such as Crunchbase and Product Hunt, and you can search for them in the Google Play and the iOS App Store.
Five Easy Steps To Do A Competitive Analysis
You can perform a competitive analysis for your existing or new product using the following five-step process.
1. Define And Understand The Goals
Defining and understanding the goal is an integral part of any UX research process. You must define an accurate goal (or set of goals) for your research; otherwise, there is a chance you’ll get the wrong outcome.
Draft all of your goals right before starting your process. When defining your goals, consider the following questions: Why are you doing this competitive analysis? What kind of outcome do you expect? Will this analysis affect UX decisions?
Remember: When setting up goals for any kind of UX research, be as specific as possible.
I mentioned earlier that I recently performed a competitive analysis for a collaborative meeting note-taking feature, to be introduced in the app that I was developing for a client. The goals for my research were very general because innumerable apps all provide this type of functionality, and the product I was working on was in the very early stages of development.
Even though your research goals might be simple, make them as specific as possible, and write them all down. Writing down your goals will help you stay on the right track.
The goals for my analysis were more like questions for which I was trying to find the answers. Here is the list of goals I set for this research:
Which apps do users prefer for note-taking? And why do they prefer them?
Goal: To find out the user’s behavior with these apps, their preferences and their comfort zone.
What is the working mechanism of these apps?
Goal: To find how out competitors’ apps work, so that we can identify their pros and cons.
What are the “star” features of these apps?
Goal: To identify functionalities that we were trying to introduce as well, to see whether they already exist and, if they exist, how exactly they were implemented.
How comfortable does a user feel when using these apps?
Goal: To identify user loyalty and engagement in the apps of our competitors.
How does collaborative editing work in these competitive apps?
Goal: To identify how collaborative-editing functionality works and to study its technical aspects.
What is the visual structure and user interface of these apps?
Goal: To check the visual look and feel of the apps (user interface and interaction).
2. Find The Right Competitors
After setting the goals, go on a search and make a list of both direct and indirect competitors. It’s not necessary to analyze all of the competitors you find. The number is completely up to you. Some people suggest analyzing at least two to four competitors, while others suggest five to ten or more.
Finding the right competitors for my research wasn’t a hard task because I already knew many apps that provided similar features, but I still did a quick search on Google, and the results were a bit surprising — surprising because most of the apps I knew turned out to be more like indirect competitors to the app I was working on; and later, after a bit more searching, I also found the apps that were our direct competitors.
Putting each competitor in the right list is a very important part of competitive analysis because the features and functionality in your competitors’ apps are based on exactly what users of those apps want. Let’s assume you put one indirect competitor, XYZ, under the “direct competitors” list and start doing your analysis. While doing the research, you might find some impressive feature in XYZ’s app and decide to add a similar feature in your own app; then, later it turns out that the feature you added is not useful for the users you are targeting. You might end up wasting a lot of energy, time and money building something that is not at all useful. So, be careful when sorting your competitors.
For my research, the competitors were as follows:
Direct competitorsQuip, Cisco Spark Meeting Notes, Workboard, Lucid Meeting, Less Meeting, MeetingSense, Minute-it, etc.
All of the apps above provide the same type of functionality, which we were trying to introduce for almost the same type of user base.
Indirect competitorsEvernote, Google Keep, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Microsoft OneNote and other traditional note-taking apps and pen-paper note-taking methods.
The user base for all of the above is not exactly different from the user base we were targeting, but most of the users we were targeting were using these apps because they were unaware of the more convenient ways to take meeting notes.
3. Make A Competitive Analysis Matrix
A competitive analysis matrix is not complex, just a simple spreadsheet. You can use Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, Apple Numbers or any other tool you are comfortable with.
First, divide all competitors you’ve found into two groups (direct and indirect) and put them in a spreadsheet. Jamie Levy suggests making the following columns:
I would recommend digging a bit deeper and adding a few more columns, such as for “unique features”, “pros and cons”, etc. It would help to summarize your analysis. It’s not necessary to set your columns exactly as mentioned above. You can modify the columns to your own research goals and needs.
For my analysis, I created only four columns. My competitive analysis matrix looked as follows:
Competitor nameIn this column, I put the names of all of the competitors.
URLThese are website links or app download links for these competitors.
Features/commentsIn this column, I put all of my comments, some ”star” features I needed to focus on, and the pros and cons of the competitor. I color-coded the cells so that later I (or anyone viewing the matrix) could easily identify the difference between them. For example, I used light yellow for features, light purple for comments, green for pros and red for cons.
Screenshots/video linksIn this column, I put all of the screenshots and videos related to the features and comments mentioned in the third column. This way, it became very easy and quick to understand what a particular comment or feature was all about.
4. Write A Summary And An Analysis
Once you are done with the analysis matrix spreadsheet, move on and create a summary of your findings. Be as specific as possible, and try to answer all of your questions while setting up a goal or during the overall process.
This will help you and your team members and stakeholders make the right design and UX decisions. This summary will also help you find new design and UX opportunities in the product you’re building.
In writing the summary and the presentation for the competitive analysis that I did for this collaborative note-taking app, the competitive analysis matrix helped me a lot. I drafted a document with all of the high-level takeaways from this analysis and answered all of the questions that were set as goals. For the presentation, I shared the document with the client, which helped both the client and me to finalize the features, the flows and the end requirements for the product.
The last step of your competitive analysis is the presentation. It’s not a typical slideshow presentation — rather, just share all of the data and information you collected throughout the process with your teammates, stakeholders and/or clients.
Getting feedback from everywhere you can and being open to this feedback is a very important part of the designer’s workflow. So, share all of your finding with your teammates, stakeholders and clients, and ask for their opinion. You might find some missing points in your analysis or discover something new and exciting from someone’s feedback.
We live in a data-driven world, and we should build products, services and apps based on data, rather than our intuition (or guesswork).
As UX designers, we should go out there and collect as much data as possible before building a real product. This data will help us to create a solid product that users will want to use, rather than a product we want or imagine. These kinds of products are more likely to succeed in the market. Competitive analysis is one of the ways to get this data and to create a user-friendly product.
Finally, no matter what kind of product you are building or research you are conducting, always try to put yourself in the users’ shoes every now and then. This way, you will be able to identify the users’ struggles and ultimately deliver a better solution.
I hope this article has helped you plan and make your first competitive analysis for your next project!
If you want to become a better UX, interaction, visual (UI) or product designer, there are a lot of sources from which you can learn — articles, books, online courses. I often check the following few: Smashing Magazine, InVision blog, Interaction Design Foundation, NN Group and UX Mastery. These websites have a very good collection of articles on the topics of UI and UX design and UX research.
Open source software is under attack. Again. And so it’s beholden on all of us to take a stand before the current scourge marginalizes the wonderous benefits of open source (which accrue to every human) and the organization which looks after both the sanctity of the open source movement and the integrity of the licenses behind it: the Open Source Initiative.
No way, Jose! I use View Source all the time! It’s very useful when you want to look at the raw HTML, not the DOM.
Yes, that is useful, and yes, there is a difference. But just because you are looking at DevTools doesn’t mean the DOM is the only thing you can see.
There is also a Network tab in DevTools for every browser. That’s where you find a way to look at the document.
So, if your concern about losing View Source is that you’d have no possible way to see the document instead of just the DOM, that’s just not true. You can rest assured that you have the same affordance in DevTools.
If your concern is that it’s handier to see the source as a full-window tab with an easy keyboard shortcut, then sure, OK, that’s a reasonable argument to make.