Lessons in Competitive Research from the London Underground

Here at Jana, we try to always have a sense of what is going on in our markets. Competitive research helps us inform product decisions and sometimes even gives us ideas for new features.

However, it’s a balancing act! Fast followership is sometimes a good strategy, but we also want to make sure to innovate so we can offer the best possible solution for our users. This balance is really hard. One of my favorite examples of someone who did this well starts with these two maps of the London Underground:

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 1.48.53 PM    Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 2.18.35 PM

While they may look very similar to us today, at the time when the left-hand side map was designed in the early 1930’s by Harry Beck, it was considered very radical compared to the more traditional map on the right hand side. Beck’s innovation was making the stations more or less equidistant rather than superimposed over a city map. Beck understood that it was more important to be able to easily see how the stations linked together to know when to get off and change trains, rather than having a geographically accurate map that showed how far apart each station was.

However, he does steal some important elements from the originals – the different colors for each line, ability to orient using the River Thames, etc. So, he picked some design elements from traditional maps, and changed others to fit his vision. This helped people understand what they were looking at, while still improving on the status quo. Today, most public transit maps are based on his design.

Beck saw that the true need of his “users” was to know when to change trains or get off the Underground – and he found a feature that provided this more effectively. That doesn’t mean that knowing how long it take to get from one stop to the other isn’t important. It’s just less important.

In product, we often ask ourselves if what we build is solving the user’s needs. I think that this is sometimes not quite specific enough of a question. It’s impossible to build something that solves every single user need. To me, the lesson from the London Underground map is that understanding which of your users’ needs are most important is key to knowing when to copy and when to innovate.


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