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In the book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy Steve Krug recommends doing usability testing for a competitive site first prior to building your own site / app. The idea is that you'll get a better idea of what works and what doesn't straight from the customer's mouth as opposed to taking the risk of building something first which might end up misaligned with the customers' needs.

My question is, how does one do competitive research on sites that are not publicly available and that require registration? As an example, when you're applying for insurance you have to enter a lot of personal data prior to setting up an account. Other portals are available only to existing members.

One way to work around this is to solicit existing registered customers of a competitor and have them share their screen. But in this case would doing so break any legal / ethical concerns or would this still be fair game?

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not sure if you have tried this but you can get a lot of screenshots of your competitor by googling them. Just use the google image feature. Might help. –  Chairman Meow Feb 24 at 21:05
    
@ChairmanMeow yeah that's a good suggestion, however you only get at scraps of pages and sometimes outdated ones at that. What I'm interested in is running a fully scale usability study vs. emotional reaction / focus group. –  firedrawndagger Feb 24 at 21:39
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1 Answer 1

You can't.

The answer to your question is very simple, you can't. If it's not public, you can't study it. Not without breaking some rules, which is not recommended.

But if you still want to do the study, you still can, you just have to change what you are studying.

First, remember that for doing the study, you need somebody that know how to do that and you need mockups, wireframes or any other kind of element to run the study over.

Once you decide to launch a site, you most probably, have some knowledge of the area of expertise that the site is going to cover, plus you have knowledge of interactions and interfaces that you have seen, so you can combine both. For the interaction, you have to replicate aspects of other sites that have what you want and study that part with your users. Of course, you can substitute what you want for what the competition offers. Even if most of their site is private, you still have access to colour schemas, positioning, flexibility od the design, reaction to different screens, technology used, loading times, etc. Use all that.

If the site that you want to study offers the option to sign in, and is something reasonable to do, do it, and use what you can see.

Of course, we are talking about legal uses here, just studying and analysing.

But, after some point, you are going to be on your own, there is going to be aspects that yuo can not see, either because you can't register, or because you can't access a section of the site, etc. That part may happen to anybody, so don't worry too much about the aspects that you can't see.

Finally, remember that the people that know how to do such a study, can recommend you options for the elements that you can't see, they may even have designed sites like the one you want, so ask as much as you can, and listen to what they say.

About your specific question of breaking rules, that is something that has to be answered on a per site basis. It's very strange to have something really new and original, so most probably whatever a site has, is also somewhere else, just try to find it.

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I'm not sure the answer is "You can't" necessarily. My understanding is that it largely depends on the terms of service / licensing agreement and I have yet to encounter one that clearly spells out no competitive usability testing allowed. The biggest issue though is the main part of the app lies inside, past the registration process - think turbotax for instance - you can browse around the site but until you go through the app and submit your taxes you're not really learning anything. –  firedrawndagger Feb 27 at 15:54
    
It's true that they don't mention clearly "don't use our pages for studying us". But usually what you can do is also spelled there and is very restrictive. So unless it's really crucial, I'd stay away from restricted areas. Unless, as you said, you get input and screenshots from registered users, being that you or someone else. –  PatomaS Feb 27 at 22:41
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