Many years ago I was working on a design project with an e-commerce company who was selling electronics on the Web. The design team was working on a large redesign of their web site in response to their latest thinking on what works best for selling their products. At one point I noticed they were making several changes to their web site that reminded me of something I had seen before. So I asked, “Why are you making that change?”
Their answer surprised me: “Well, that’s what Amazon.com does and they test the heck out of everything”.
This act of copying something because a big-name site does it was new to me at the time…most designers I knew would rather give up designing than blindly copy someone else. But as organizations get bigger and budgets and schedules become tighter, copying gets easier and more frequent. Copying has become common practice in many organizations.
Copying is part of design and always will be. Most designers are heavily affected by the work around them…emulation is the way humans learn on a very basic level. But there is a very real difference between being inspired by other designs and copying them blindly.
The latest design to copy is Facebook…they’re the obvious leader in the social space so it is assumed that their design is optimal. But Facebook is actually a huge copycat themselves. They have emulated much of what Twitter has done and just recently introduced Places, which copies the check-in idea from Foursquare. So even if you’re copying a market leader, you’re probably just copying from the designers they copied from anyway.
But simply put, copying design is a horrible idea. Here’s why:
- You don’t know why a design element is the way it is. Every design element is in the throes of its own evolution. What state an element is in right now is as much an artifact of how it got there as anything…politics, culture, how good the coffee was that morning…all these things effect how a design element turns out. When you copy a design element you’re missing all of these things…you’re simply copying its current state. Without knowing the history of an element, you can’t know if it’s actually doing the job it’s supposed to do.
- You’re always behind. Playing catchup by copying other people’s designs means that you’re never innovating. You’re never pushing the boundaries for your customers. They probably won’t notice…and that’s a bad thing. Instead, you want them to notice that you’re improving things all the time based on their feedback.
- You’re outsourcing your most important decisions. When design teams are on top of their decisions they produce much better work. They’re actively listening to customers and thinking two or three steps ahead. When you outsource your design decisions, you’re stifling this.
- You’re putting up another barrier between you and your customers. By not responding directly to the needs of your customers you are erecting yet another barrier between you and them.
- You’re rewarding the wrong behavior. Not only is copying design bad for business, but it’s also detrimental to the psychology of your design team. When the accepted behavior is to copy from others, then you devalue the decisions of your own designers. You might not see negative effects right away, but you will a month or two down the line.
- You’re devaluing your own data. This is probably the biggest problem with copycat design. By outsourcing your design to others, you’re devaluing the insights you can gain from your own data. This means that you’ll investigate less, test less, do less user testing, talk less to your own customers. Pretty soon your culture becomes a full-blown copycat culture, with no innovation in sight.
So, back to Amazon. The end of the story is the best part. A few years after the incident above I was chatting with one of my friends who I met later and who happened to work at Amazon during the same time frame. He laughed when I told him this story. He said, “I remember on several occasions having the exact same discussion at Amazon. Someone would lift an idea from a competitor and assume it had been tested, and so we would use it. It’s funny to think that Amazon can test everything…of course they can’t…they’re only human.”