Should You Copy a Famous Site's Design?

by Jakob Nielsen on August 23, 2010

Summary: Although successful websites typically have high usability, average sites can hurt their business by copying design elements that don't work well in other contexts.

When faced with a design quandary, bosses are often inclined to say, "why don't we just copy X?" where X is some high-profile, successful website. There's something to be said for this strategy; presumably, Site X is doing something right, since they're so big and famous.

Furthermore, users prefer well-established designs that follow conventions and work as expected. For example, having a search box in the upper right corner increases the usability of your search simply because this is what users are accustomed to using in the location where they expect to find it. (See our eyetracking research for more examples of where people tend to look for various design elements.)

But copying successful designs is not a foolproof way to improve your own site's business value. Indeed, this strategy has many pitfalls.

(Note: When I say "copy," I don't mean that in a literal sense — that is, I'm not advocating copyright violations or design theft. Rather, I'm assuming that once you've considered the pitfalls and decided to go with a feature or design that's similar to a big site's, you'll create a new site that's inspired by that site's example. If you fear that your copy is too close to the original, consult a lawyer, but if you feel the need to do that you're probably already going too far.)

Why Copies Can Fail

There are two main reasons why copying another site can go wrong, even if that site is highly successful:

  • The specific UI element you're copying is not that good.
  • The design works fine in the original site's context, but it's no good in the different context offered by your site.

We recently ran a usability study of 17 big and famous websites: Amazon, Apple, BBC, Chase, Cisco, CNN, Facebook, Flickr, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Kayak, Netflix, TigerDirect, WebMD, The White House, Yahoo, and YouTube. Indeed, our research confirmed that these sites do many things right and have substantially better usability than the more average sites tested in many of our other projects. In fact, the big sites' success rate was 3 percentage points higher than the average for other sites.

Still, the study identified boatloads of usability problems in the big sites' user experience.

Good Site, Bad Design

Even if a site has high overall usability, specific design elements can still be bad. And if you're copying one of the bad ones — oops. A good website might contain poor features for many reasons:

  • Nobody's perfect. A good design team still makes mistakes. Maybe team members didn't have time to test some minor design element, so it went up despite being bad. Or maybe they thought it was good and were wrong.
  • Lack of resources. Even a big company doesn't have infinite resources; sometimes designers know very well that their site includes a bad design element, but they haven't had the time to fix it.
  • Waiting for the update. Maybe they did fix it, but haven't launched the revised design yet. You could be copying something that the site owner is about to replace.

In our study, a person who was already a registered user on Kayak had great trouble logging into the site on this screen:

Part of a web page with fields for both logging in and for registering new users.

How can that be? The distinction between "sign up" and "sign in" is clearly marked! Sure, if you read the blah-blah. But users don't. Their eyes and mouse go straight to the field where they can type.

That's what people want to do: they want to get things done . They don't want to read.

In this case, the user didn't notice the difference between signing "up" vs. "in." The most prominent input fields were those for registering, so she typed in those fields, then clicked the "Sign In" button. This went on for 20 minutes as she got more and more frustrated. (Outside the lab, most users would probably give up and leave the site; in this case, we got some great video clips for our seminar that show a user making various mistakes over and over again.)

And how can anybody type in the left part of the form and then click the button on the right ? Well, users frequently do such things (and even weirder behaviors). If you don't think so, it's because you have never observed normal people use computers. That's why we do usability studies: because we are not the audience.

After our testing, Kayak redesigned the sign-in workflow to remove this usability problem. Kayak still doesn't have the perfect design for this problem ('s is better), but they've definitely improved. So, if you copied Kayak a few months ago, you'd have a serious usability problem on your site. That is, depending on when you copied it relative to a random date outside your control, your conversion rate would be drastically different. Do you feel lucky?

Following is another before/after example from Kayak, which shows how a simple change to the sliders on the right made this design easier to understand.

Two different designs of sliders for specifying desired window of flight departure times: bad usability on the left and good usability on the right

Different Context = Different Optimal Design

Even if you're lucky enough to copy a big site on the day they happen to have a good design for the feature you want, their design might not be the best for your site.

Many years ago, I pointed out that was no longer the role model for e-commerce design. This is even truer today.

Smaller sites and lesser-known companies have to work that much harder to establish credibility. Customers placing an order on already know that they'll receive the product two days later and that they'll easily get a replacement in the rare case that the shipment was damaged. Not so when they're doing business with you for the first time.

On Apple's site, users had to hunt around to find the button to purchase an iPhone. Not only was the button in an unconventional location relative to most e-commerce sites, used internally inconsistent colors and labels for its Buy buttons.

Interestingly, having a (deserved) reputation for good design came to Apple's rescue. Users were forgiving because they knew that the iPhone had high usability, and they were sufficiently committed to spending the extra time to find out how to purchase one.

On sites with a weaker brand reputation for usability, prospective customers would give up more easily in the face of difficulties. Even worse, a poor user experience on the website would reflect poorly on the company as a whole: If they can't even design a Buy button, how hard will it be to use their actual products?

There are many other reasons why a big-site design might not work for you:

  • Scale: Sorting through millions of products or articles requires more UI horsepower than needed for a simpler site with a handful of offerings.
  • Maintenance: Some design approaches — as simple as a company blog — require frequent updates to avoid going stale. Better not do it if you can't commit the resources to keep it working.
  • Integration: I've often discussed the importance of total user experience. Design elements can't be examined in isolation; they should work together. So, if you take one element out and plug it into a different context, it might not play well with your site's other design elements.
  • Domain: Government agencies often say they look to The White House as a role model for their websites. In addition to's occasional usability weaknesses, most government agencies offer a completely different set of services to their users. How to present nuclear safety regulations? Definitely differently than posting the president's latest speeches.
  • Audience: Usability is always relative to two things: the users and their tasks. Maybe your users are more technically savvy than the general audience that typically dominates on the big sites. Often your users will have more specialized knowledge about your issues than general users — then again, the opposite might be true if you're offering basic education.
    • This last issue is particularly important for intranet design, where it's rarely appropriate to copy mainstream consumer-focused sites from the open Web. (That's why there are so many separate usability guidelines for intranets.) For example, even though there are many good uses of social features in the enterprise, don't copy Twitter, Facebook, and the like.
      • Web users = customers. Intranet users = employees.
      • Web tasks = shopping/having fun/etc. Intranet tasks = doing your job/cranking out deliverables.

Most of all, you're probably not as prominent as the famous site you're thinking of emulating. Even if you're a big company or government agency, you're rarely big on the Net, as measured by the number of hours an average user would spend on your site each month. Users thus won't be as motivated to learn new interaction techniques on your site as they are on a big site that they use more frequently.

For example, YouTube's "Inbox" and "Personal Messages" screens don't explain that this is an internal messaging system rather than a normal email account, and the error messages users see when entering an email address don't explain it either. Even after repeated attempts, one of our test users never figured this out. YouTube is clearly successful and can probably afford to place this hurdle in front of its highly motivated users who return to the site again and again for their daily fix of funny videos. You, however, should probably stay with a design that people already understand.

Good vs. Bad: How to Tell?

Often, a big and famous site can be worth emulating. But sometimes it'll decimate your business metrics if you copy the big boys. How can you tell whether you're in one situation or the other?

If you've read my column for some time, you no doubt know that the answer is simple: user testing. Remember, user testing doesn't have to take very long. You can mock up the proposed design as a wireframe or paper prototype in less than a day and test it immediately.

Even faster: because the design element is already implemented on an existing website, you can run a user test of that site without any prep (other than writing some test tasks). Of course, testing another site won't give you full insights into how well something will work on your site, but you can get an early idea, which will often put you on the right track with a minimal investment.

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