It’s been said that everything is a remix. Product design is no different. In her article “Following Trends: Homage vs. Design Plagiarism” author Cameron Chapman says, “Every designer in the world is working with roughly the same basic tools: the same range of colors, the same interfaces, the same alphabets, the same shapes. How they put them together varies widely, of course. But regardless of the end result, are any of them really original?”
The boundary between creative inspiration and creative theft has been defined and discussed at length by many groups more qualified than I. But what I find most interesting is the role design plagiarism plays in the user experience of a software product. The answer appears to be…none. That is to say, design plagiarism doesn’t matter to your user.
Granted, there is a difference between copying feature functionality and user experience vs. copying the brand or visual design of another product. Corporate wars have been fought over this throughout time, and it’s definitely a large discussion. Here, I’ll try to briefly distinguish the two and provide some insight.
Decades ago, websites seemed to operate more as canvases for the individual expression, whether it be of a brand or a person. There was little thought to giving the user predictability, recognizable patterns, or clear calls to action. I’m looking at you, Space Jam Website.
Recently, the aesthetic of apps, devices, and the web has become more homogenized. It’s obvious now which visual styles and interaction patterns we favor most to help communicate ideas and functionality to users. White space, drop shadows, careful use of color, flat illustration with abstract human form, card navigation, mobile-first views, and gentle easing in animations, are all prolific. If websites were the fashion industry in the 90s, the aforementioned list would all be an acid wash denim jacket.
The visual design of brands is becoming increasingly similar as successful tech and lifestyle products set a certain tone that designers wish to replicate to signal that their website, app, or service is in the same quality realm.
Your users are humans like you who respect artistic integrity, good intentions, and pure origins. They’re not soulless jackals who reward thievery or prefer cold pizza. But what they are consuming is often simply a tool. Perhaps it’s a tool designed to broadcast art and beauty or knowledge and wisdom, but still a tool. And a tool’s most important function is to be usable and to get a job done. Ultimately, the user only cares about how well the tool they’re using does the job. Thus, it falls to the designer to care about copying someone else’s visual design. While the possibility of visual similarity will always exist in similar products, true visual design plagiarism is uncreative and should be avoided.
User experiences are also becoming more standardized. On the one hand, industry leaders have established a template for success that is easily replicable. On the other hand, the platforms on which we navigate the internet have matured as tools and therefore developed recognizable patterns. Tools need to be easily identified, operated, and maintained. Tools are a means to an end. Creative liberties now exist more in the content produced online rather than in how you present the content to the user.
In many cases, a brilliant product team comes up with a new feature, a new interaction, a new style, a new technology, a new something. Then, other product teams in the same or similar industries may use that new something as inspiration, or simply adopt it verbatim as a new standard to be practiced by all. It’s hard to know where the plagiarism line is, especially when implementing something that is perceived to benefit technology work in general. From hamburger menus to swipe interactions, it’s difficult to assign ownership in perpetuity for the best new way of doing something.
When a user sees the same interaction pattern inside two different apps, they may notice it, it may even become a talking point, but it will not be truly interruptive to their experience. It certainly won’t keep them from deriving value from whichever product incorporates the best implementation of said pattern for the best overall experience. This is because users have a job to be done when they engage with a product, and their primary motivation is getting that job done as effectively as possible. They don’t care who does it.
Snapchat vs Instagram
One of the best modern examples of this phenomenon is Snapchat Stories. These are brief photos or videos, sometimes chained together to create a longer narrative, that can be shared with a user’s network of friends with little thought to curation or timing because they only exist in the audience’s view for a period of a few hours or days. The “Stories” feature is just another application of Snapchat’s brilliant idea to create an interaction pattern centered around sharing disposable content. This proves very effective at three things:
- Increasing user engagement by increasing the presence of variable reward
- Catering to short attention spans and low device storage
- Matching the stream-of-consciousness style of social media consumption
Smash cut to 2016 when Instagram releases its own version of a story feature, built using almost identical interaction patterns (and similar visual design) as Snapchat stories. At the time, there was widespread criticism and commentary in the media. But, users of both platforms didn’t protest Instagram as a copycat. Instead, they quietly experimented with the Instagram version of stories, and soon abandoned Snapchat in droves. They realized that the “job” of connecting with friends and peers by sharing visual snippets of their life via social media could more effectively be done with Instagram. Often, we confuse barriers to exit as consumer loyalty. If switching costs are low (as in the example of a Snapchat user who has also built out a network of friends on Instagram) users are only as loyal as the value they derive from the product.
When seeking inspiration on how to solve a user problem, there’s no shame in looking to who has done it best. I’ve spoken to product professionals from renowned companies like Facebook, Lyft, and Google, who have admitted that in some cases, the best patterns for a particular use case already exist. The case against UX plagiarism is far weaker than against copying the visual design or brand identity. Without recognizable and repeatable elements, the internet would be a much tougher place to navigate.
Adopt the right mindset
Some might lament a supposed loss of creativity in the modern age of web and product design, but perhaps it’s just the internet getting better at one of its most important attributes: accessibility. Digital interfaces today are more homogenous but also more useful.
If users don’t care about design plagiarism, should you as the designer? The answer is yes, to a reasonable extent. An understanding of what constitutes plagiarism in design is a start. In my research, a few core guidelines have emerged that will help anyone stay on the right side of the conversation:
- Research the subject matter and the experts.
- Make improvements or add something new to the original.
- Don’t rely on one source of inspiration.
These are great rules of engagement for product designers looking outward for creative assistance. But, the true secret sauce of any good product can also be found in places other than the finished result. What’s your relationship with and understanding of your customers? What’s your team dynamic and culture? What’s your development and testing process? These are aspects of your product output that are far more difficult to imitate. These can be things your team takes pride and joy in defining for themselves, as every company’s needs are unique.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
At Weave, I’ve struggled as a designer to distinguish the experiences I create from other leaders in our product space. Weave incorporates many features like messaging, chat, phone service, and scheduling that combine to make a complete business toolbox. It’s easy to find examples of features like these whose UX has already been optimized in adjacent products. At times, I’ve found myself wasting time attempting to reinvent the wheel purely to avoid comparisons or accusations of copying.
A product thought leader, founder, and author (who will remain anonymous) once told me, “I don’t care whether I’m chasing or copying my competition as long as the outcome is what my customer needs.” This seems like a radical perspective, especially when considering popular adages like “race to the bottom” that warn against matching features or mirroring your competitors. We often extol being “different” and “innovative” because there is much pride attached to the act of invention. However, in the context of product development, attempting to innovate just to remain distinguished can limit our focus on the user's needs. In the end, our greatest obligation is to solve their problem.
You may not have noticed, but Netflix recently adopted a new interaction pattern for navigating in a video player. Originally found on Youtube, the interaction allows you to tap the screen twice (independent of the fast forward or pause buttons) to skip ahead in increments of 10 or more seconds. I have loved this interaction pattern as implemented by Youtube. So, when I saw Netflix do it, I wasn’t upset (*crying* “But me and Youtube used to do that…it was our special thing!”). I saw it as the functionality I wanted and expected. It was pleasing.
Act with integrity, but above all, solve the problem
Visual design plagiarism is an issue and should be avoided. UX plagiarism is trickier, and probably admissible in benefit to the user. To maintain a clear code of ethics in both cases, ask yourself a few questions:
- “Have I researched the subject matter and seen the expert's solutions?
- Am I adding something new to the solution I’m taking inspiration from?
- Am I relying on more than one inspiration source?
- Is the finished design the best possible solution to the original problem?
When it comes to product design, if someone else already thought of the best way to solve a problem, then lean on their solution. In some cases, the margin for potential improvement is razor-thin, and the cost of innovation cannot be justified and shouldn’t be attempted. If your product is the one that yields inspiration or even pure imitation from others, be flattered. Above all, solve the problem.