Talking Competitive Analysis with Stuart Silverstein #HOWidc

A Los Angeles native, Stuart Silverstein’s design career began in visual design and brand development—first as a production artist, then as a designer. But a love of lifehacking and usability led him to transition from visual designer to UX designer in 2007 and he hasn’t looked back. Stuart is obsessed with making shopping carts work, maximizing usability, and making sites easy to comprehend, and he’s now senior UX designer at movie ticket seller Fandango.

stuart silverstein, ux designer, how interactive design conference speaker, web design conferenceHe’s going to be speaking at the HOW Interactive Design Conference (in both San Francisco and Washington, DC), presenting a session called Creating Actionable Insight with Competitive Analysis. Competitive analysis is crucial to research in branding, website and product design, and, if done right, can solve visual and user-experience problems. Silverstein will talk about the types of competitive analysis available, explain techniques for documentation, and show how analysis should influence design decisions and help you create a better product. We asked him a couple questions:

Can you tell us a little more about your session on competitive analysis?

I really love the discovery phase of any project. There are a ton of ideas floating around and a ton of possibilities, and I love the process of taking all of these ideas and putting a plan together to create something tangible. The first part of this process is brainstorm and ideation. Since I don’t come from a traditional design background, what has always fascinated me was how designers get ideas and make connections. In my old agency, we printed out everything. Not just our ideas but competitors and inspiration, and our walls were littered with stuff.

In the process, we developed a unique approach to competitive analysis. Everybody does analysis as part of their due dilligence as part of any design project, but it’s often just looking at a few websites, poking around and taking a few screen grabs, and then designing with that in mind. If you’re doing branding as part of an interactive project, the main competitive analysis usually revolves around positioning and broad strokes. We felt there was much more you could break down and compare in order to not just differentiate your project by inituition but to understand trends in the industry and compare what’s working and what’s not. So we created a way of documenting and analyzing interactive projects that has been very successful, which is what I will be discussing at my session.

What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you during your design career?

That I’m in it! I was a musician with a degree in music prior to getting into design. Design was not on my radar. I had some experience with Photoshop and basic design work when I was working in an art gallery and they needed a catalog. So my roommate and I at the time thought, “Well, this doesn’t look too hard, and we can figure out how to use Quark.” (LOL.) So, we got a designer friend to help us through it, and I haven’t looked back since.

What are your favorite design tools for creating interactive projects?

Depends on the project, but my two weapons of choice are InDesign and Axure (oh the heresy!) I really believe that the industry is ripe for a new tool that uses an interactive workflow. Fireworks would be just about perfect if the type tools worked and it wasn’t so clunky to use.  I’m very interested in checking out Muse, as it seems like it might be the right tool for the job.

The tools we have now are really not efficient in an interactive design workflow. I mean Photoshop is a single document design tool; it’s really not for doing entire websites. I have found that when people use Photoshop for web design, that extension can get either sloppy or inconsistent without any design documentation. Even with design documentation, the type and grid controls are not meant for large interactive projects with lots of type and type styles, navigation styles, etc, I find Photoshop to be difficult to manage all the elements of anything but a small interactive project.

So what I have done is gone to either an InDesign workflow or Axure workflow. I use InDesign if it’s mainly a content site, and the prototype testing will be minimal. The other consideration is whether the visual design and development team are comfortable using InDesign. If they are, I prefer it as it can save a ton of time on the project as a whole. I find that once teams switch into this workflow it’s much easier. You have all the pages and type styles ready to hand off to visual design, and the visual designer can get the initial design done really quickly. I love the type and object styles in InDesign that allow you to make large scale changes globally without a lot of work. It is also much easier to maintain a baseline grid, consistent spacing between objects, consistent button styles, and help you keep track of all your styles so you don’t create a ton of unnecessary styles. At the end it also helps you to know all the styles for documentation to the dev team, and they can create lighter CSS files because there aren’t extra type styles and inconsistent spacing.

As for Axure, it really shines when you have a lot of interactivity or functionality on a site. It can help you do variables, and create more realistic prototypes quicker. I think if Axure could output a PSD file, this tool would be the ultimate for UX design. Insofar as this applies to designers, I found a really cool trick for saving time exporting from Axure to a design tool. What I do is save the Axure file to a PDF and  open it in Illustrator, then paste all that into any other design tool from there. Saves a lot of retyping.

What do you plan to do while you’re in San Francisco?

San Fran always brings to mind the concept of “the urban meets the natural.” There are so many great green spaces in the area to get out (Golden Gate Park, Muir Woods, the Presidio) that it’s really nice to get outdoors there and bike, run picnic or whatever. It makes me think of food. A trip to House of Nanking is always included in the agenda.

Honestly one of my favorite things to do in San Francisco is to get out of town and go up to Sonoma. I always make it a point to go up to Sonoma whenever I get up there. Healdsburg is also all kinds of awesome. That and the Disney Family Museum, because I’m a Disney freak.

Join us in Washington, DC, or San Francisco this fall at the HOW Interactive Design ConferenceRegister for either conference by July 16 to save $200!