Should we be plagiarising layouts?

The curse of the digital world, if there is one, is the speed at which it changes and develops. Facebook releases a new layout ever year, Apple release a new device to view it on (and a new operating system to go with it) at the same speed and the digital world, in general, panders to the ever switching tides of change.

Don’t get me wrong…. this is great – it’s why I love digital and the reason I do what I do on a day to day basis.

However, for many, it creates an impression that they can be this wind of change. By many I don’t even mean just the individuals (like myself) who write part-time blogs or hobby sites… I also include large corporations and projects with hefty financial backing.

This, again, isn’t solely bad. I’ve written before about this pattern (in regards to Flash) and how now we have now have a subtle progression rather than designers spewing animated gifs left right and centre to dramatically transform the digital landscape. However, the issue is not ours (the visitor), but rather theirs.

Let me give you an example:

This morning I tied my shoe laces. I can’t remember doing it. I’ve tied them so many times it’s like second nature to me: the movement of my fingers, the feel of the laces, the sharp tug and pull that keeps them in place… I’ve performed this task on so many occasions I don’t even register it any longer.

But if someone were to change the way laces work tomorrow I would be lost. Recently I had to change my login for my work computer (we have to every few months for security reasons). Every morning I still input my old password… because that’s what I’m trained… neigh… conditioned to do.

This is why people complain so vigorously when Facebook alter their layout. Suddenly their whole (digital) world has been turned upside down (remember – people are, on average, spending between 18-30% of their time online on Facebook). Similarly, when new sites (and I’m including sites that have undergone redesign) are built that defy all previous conventions they better be prepared for users who don’t know where to click.

Time for another example? OK…

Recently a new site was made open to the public. You might have heard of it. It was called Google+. Now I actually rather like Google+ except for one thing… where you log out. (I’d like to point out at this stage that post Google+’s launch this has become standard across all Google products.) Along the top nav bar (when you are logged in) you are shown a picture of yourself (pretty much in the same place you are on Facebook) – this is where you click to logout. However, on Facebook, you are required to to use a menu two tabs to the right of the image to log out

Facebook’s site is the most used and so sets the standard.

Google’s sites confuse matters with their similar, but not identical, layout.

What’s the issue? You may be asking. Well not much. Except that every time I use the site I click in the wrong place. I have been conditioned to look to the right of my profile picture to log out. I have been accessing Facebook far longer… it has far more users world-wide and is, many believe, the most visited site on the web. As such it makes Google’s process seem… well… unnatural.

And I think that’s just it. We now have this sense that digital processes should be natural or innate. We live in a post iPhone world – a world that has been introduced to the concept that products should be intrinsic – you should just know how to use them. So this, I suppose, is the question… should we be copying other site’s layout when building our own?

I don’t think I have an answer to this one. It would be irresponsible to leave it to the industry giants to forge the paths of change. However it’s almost impossible for the ‘little guys’ to make themselves heard. (On a personal level I also hate the idea of fitting design to a pre-built structure or formula.)

The solution, I believe, may be to concede to our inadequacies. To admit that we don’t know… but we want to. If we know we want to take advantage of our users’ previous conditioning so that we might make our products intrinsic to use, but don’t know how we’re going to do it (bar copying someone else), we need to test. We need to trial ideas, pitch multiple wire frames, multi-variant test and bring in focus groups.

However, we would be foolish to forget where convention comes from and to ignore the best practice of others. The one question we should always be asking of our users is “where do you want to click?” Because if we know how our audience want to use our products they will be all that more likely to do so.

Let me know your thoughts using the comments section below.