By now we all know that successful startups focus on learning about their users — figuring out what features, branding, and messaging resonate and perform best. Smart teams invest valuable time designing, building, testing, and iterating their own designs and prototypes based on learning from analytics and user studies.

But don’t forget to test your competitors’ products too! Think of them as free, fully functional prototypes. By testing the “prototypes” your competitors have already built, you can learn a ton about users’ reactions to different designs, business models, and messaging. Free!

A few tips:

Compare and contrast
Whenever possible, let users test more than one design at a time. You can show people your prototype and a competitor’s product, or multiple competitors together. Feedback from users is much richer when they have different examples to compare and weigh against each other.

Focus on “why”
The goal is to learn which parts of each product are more and less successful — not to pick a winner. It’s much more valuable to uncover why users like or dislike aspects of the prototypes you’re testing.

Call them all “prototypes”
Even when I’m testing a competitor’s launched product, I tell test participants it’s a prototype. When people think a product is still in the workshop, they’re more likely to think about it as something that can be changed and improved.

Learn about branding (or not)
You can learn a lot by seeing how users perceive the branding of different products. However, if you want to even the playing field, you can obscure competitors’ brands or replace them with your own. Just take screenshots of the flows you want to test, edit them, and assemble them in order in a slide deck.

Learn how you can differentiate
Don’t worry — testing competitors’ products doesn’t lead to imitation. In our experience, it usually helps companies crystallize what makes them different from their competitors.

Any time a startup can find low-cost, fast ways to learn about their users and market, it’s going to help them make better decisions more quickly. So next time you’re considering a prototype to test your assumptions, don’t forget to test the free prototypes from your competitors. And please, let us know how it goes.