Product Differentiation and User Experience

Most design efforts I see are copies of other designs with superficial changes. While getting inspiration by other products may be a way to get thing done fast — it’s not a good thing for the product in the long run. When you copy other products, you lower the differentiation of your product in the market and this triggers larger issues.

Why does product differentiation matter?

Poor differentiation matters — over time, it can kill products and by extension, it can kill companies.

When competing products look too much like each other, this is bad for marketing and sales. Since products end up looking the same, marketing departments have a harder time making the product appear better than its competitors. Low differentiation makes it hard for sales to justify a higher price for the product, because the product looks similar to the competitor’s. Both marketing and sales find themselves backed up in a corner, with the worst choice they can make — to compete on price by offering the product at a lower price than the competitors — over time, this is a dead end.

It’s a dead end because it prompts the competitors to also lower their price, and before you know it, you’re racing to the bottom — until the products are no longer are able to sustain the companies that make them.

So, keep that in mind next time you find yourself copying a design from your competitor. And, please resist the urge to get clever. Differentiation is still a problem even if you change the font style, the color and the layout of the design you copied. The take away is this: differentiation based on visual design alone is not enough. You have to also differentiate the way things work, behave — how they help the users.

This means that you need to also differentiate interaction design, information architecture, design strategy, content strategy, data strategy, and user research.

Differentiation is hard work

When you try to differentiate your products you will encounter a few challenges:

  • The challenge of differentiation is blind to the fact that you either copied someone’s design or you used a popular design pattern. (Both lower differentiation). If it looks and works like the competitors, your design will deliver low differentiation.
  • It’s easy to get confused. Your instinct may be to “get creative”. In UX design, we try to ground our design in facts as much as possible. Getting creative may be an option but the design strategy should be grounded on the UX process.
  • Designing something different takes a lot of different skills. This is why most designers just copy things — it’s easier — but it’s irresponsible in the long run.
  • Applying differentiation blindly is a mistake. Applying UX differentiation is part of UX strategy. You need to apply it strategically — within context — you need to take the larger context into consideration and know the when, where, how and to what extent of applying UX differentiation. Get these wrong, it’s likely that your efforts will be wasted. Most of the time, this is a very costly mistake.
  • Selling a differentiated design may be an uphill battle. You’re likely to encounter opposition from product owners, project managers and developers who don’t understand the value of differentiation. Your allies are marketing, sales and product management. These folks should understand differentiation — it’s a basic concept in their field — and if they don’t understand it, you need to help them understand it.

Do your designers know how to differentiate your products?

Most UX job postings today mention a wide range of requirements from job to job. Some companies are still lost and think of UX as “visual design”, (focused on patterns, textures, colors, fonts), and ignore just about everything else. As a result, both companies and UX designers end up lacking the skills necessary to contextualize their designs.

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