By Frank Spillers

Google calendar
The Internet is great for taking a rapid look at what your competitors might be doing as you design a user interface. While this is a valuable learning opportunity, it can also be dangerous and inappropriate for your design.

The biggest problem I have found, is that user interface approaches or design elements do not carry neatly across contexts. Each design context is unique. By design context I mean a few things:

  • Brand experience: Each company has a unique set of emotions, memories, triggers that set the mood for interacting with a user's goal or task.
  • Metaphor: How you represent or communicate functionality or concepts a user needs to interact with, is often unique to your site. It is rare to have an exact match even between competitor applications.
  • User focus: The user's attention, concentration and expectation for completing a task on your site, or with your software, is inherently different to the user focus on that of others.
  • Task flow: What users need to do to be successful is very particular from one site to the next. Take something as common as e-commerce for example: Shopping for high heel shoes and hiking boots require differences in decision-making criteria. Design widgets may differ to cater to this unique task flow.
  • Page layout: Features and functionality will dictate a different need for the design to flex toward a user's needs, that is hard to force-fit between designs. 

Look at Microsoft's Live search compared to Google. Live has gotten closer to Google's look and feel over the years but is still strikingly different. Same task, same functionality, but totally different search experiences.

Why is this such a big issue?

Competitor or third party design ideas are often used as a justification for "why or how we should do it" by program or product managers, designers and even developers. Just because it exists means it's valid. Designs can quickly turn "me too" in a meeting, just by someone demonstrating and explaining the merits of a design idea.

Over the last year (in my usability consulting with Experience Dynamics) I've run into a few situations where either design metaphors or AJAX implementations were borrowed from leading applications like Google calendar. In almost every instance where either I or my client tried to borrow from another application (e.g. iTunes, Google Apps, Kayak or any other design you like or consider best practice) we found the "fit" was imperfect. Something was lost in translation, and I believe that something was design context. For example, when we usability tested the design element, it did not quite work for the particular user experience we were designing.

This is particularly a big issue these days with so many new and exciting AJAX usability design elements being developed and not yet standardized.

When it makes sense to "borrow"

Competitor or third party websites or applications can serve as a great inspiration or discussion piece. Often times in design meetings, I will review a competitor site or best practice application as a way to explore, educate, contrast or break a design meeting log-jam.

I am reminded over and over that borrowing design ideas is not a clean art. You must be careful or you could end up with an ear on top of your head, as in the kids game Mr. Potato Head...

Here are some guidelines I have found helpful:

  1. If you borrow you need to carefully assess the context. Does it work for your unique design context? 
  2. How translatable, cross-over-able, inter-operable is the idea, metaphor, widget or design paradigm?
  3. What do we know about the design element or implementation based on current and past Human Computer Interaction knowledge?
  4. Are you ignoring the context you borrowed it from and retro-fitting it into your design context, hence damaging its adaptability and adopt-ability?
  5. Is the design element something you have uncertainties about? Can you usability test it or have a usability expert review it for flaws or structural weaknesses?

Paying attention to the dangers of borrowing across contexts is an important and delicate skill. If you say "well I don't have this problem because I don't borrow- all my designs are original" then you probably are fairly unique. Worse this still applies to you because every design best practice, design standard or user interface style guide you have studied or seen has patterned you, one way or another.

The most obvious example of this is the Mac or iTunes user who tries to "export" the iTunes search box, bottom left plus sign Add widget, or the horizontal 'select-sub category' menus (design elements only familiar inside the iTunes interface). Remember not everyone loves or uses iTunes!

At some level we are all tainted by the pre-cognitive processing we bring to a new design, based on our past, mainly unconscious generalizations of how things should be. My point here has been that if you do this consciously as in "let's see how X does it", be careful what and how you borrow!

Having learned my lesson, my tendency now is to look and learn and then go do something that works for your unique user experience.

Best Wishes,
Frank Spillers, MS