Imitation May Be Flattery, But It Will Get You Nowhere

Back in the mid 90s at the beginning of the dotcom boom, I had an interview with a company. I won’t tell you which one because it doesn’t matter. I asked them what their goals were.

“We want to beat our competition.” was the reply.

“Great! So what is your strategy for that?” I asked.

“We want to beat them at their game.”

“Right. How do you plan to do that?” I asked again.

“Be better than they are.”

“How would you say you are better than they are?” I was hoping to get a clear answer that would make me enthusiastic about working for them. But I never did get an answer beyond, “We want to beat our competition.” Maybe they were afraid to share too much with me for fear I was some sort of spy. Or maybe they just weren’t clear themselves.

I’m guessing the latter because they never did beat their competition. Not by a longshot.

When companies want to redesign, they often start by poking around at their competition’s sites. It’s quite tempting to say, “These guys are successful. I like their design. Let’s use their design and we’ll be successful too!”

There are a number of problems with this “strategy”. Specifically, two main ones.

It may be illegal. From what I’ve seen on the interwebs, copyrighting a web site is a a grey area. Sometimes it’s blatantly clear when someone rips off an idea or design. But one can’t copyright the use of purple and green in a design. (Although IMHO in some cases, it should be illegal.)

When it comes to code, viewing source code (Ctrl+u Ctrl+f) is a great way to see how someone achieved a certain affect on their site. But don’t be tempted to Ctrl+c Ctrl+v. Sites like Stack Overflow are a much better way to learn new code. And if you’re using an open-source CMS (like WordPress), software, or “free” graphics, check the terms.

Technically, a site and its content are copyrighted the second the site goes live. But in order to pursue legal action, it needs to be registered. And just because a site has the ® in the footer doesn’t mean it’s been registered. In my experience, few small companies actually register their content — until they decide to pursue legal action or someone attempts to sue them. But see the first sentence. However, I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV. To play it safe, just don’t blatantly copy someone else’s work. Do unto others, yada, yada, yada. And there’ this:

It just won’t work for you. Perhaps best reason to not copy design is that your’re doing your company a disservice.

My colleague, Subir Kumedan, founder and CEO of UX For All, will tell you that copying someone else’s site design will actually backfire because you can’t stand out from the competition if you’re simply copying them.

When doing research in preparation for a redesign, companies will not only look at their competition, but also favorite sites (either ones for which they like the design or they frequently use), or trending web sites. “There’s nothing wrong in getting inspiration from well-designed sites,” says Kumedan. “But if you start copying entire layouts, that’s when you might be asking for trouble,” Kumedan says.

Besides the aforementioned legal issues, there’s a very important reason to not copy a site: Your brand is unique from the company whose site your are tempted to copy. At least it should be.

Kumedan suggests visualizing your top 2 customer personas. What characteristics standout? What problems can your company solve for them.

Now look at the sites you want to copy and ask yourself what your customers would make of them. If there are still elements you like, figure out why they might work for your site. And validate through user testing before launch. The results might surprise you.