You’ve probably heard this age old quote:

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.” — Pablo Picasso

We think Picasso might have said this because he thought that people are exposed to lots of information in their everyday lives. He proposed that no idea is unique, but we just borrow ideas from those around us. Picasso isn’t the only one either, the late Steve Jobs firmly believed that the best products of our time aren’t completely new innovations, but just great ideas copied and packaged into a new, accessible format.

Xerox’s first graphic user interface

Take for example Xerox, who developed the first graphical user interface. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs ended up fighting over this idea. Bill claimed that “It’s like we both have this rich neighbour called Xerox, and you (Steve) went to steal his TV only to find that I had already stolen it”. Today, we know these ideas simply as Windows and Mac OS.

Design patterns and similarity in solutions

The balance of outright stealing ideas and developing on them is up for debate though, especially in the age of digital design. In the world of web design; “Hamburger” menu icons, graphical symbols and one page websites are just some examples of how popular digital products are being designed today. Let’s take a look at a Facebook’s user homepage:

Facebook’s profile page

Look familiar?

It should, Twitter’s is nearly identical.

Twitter’s page

As is LinkedIn’s.

Annnnd LinkedIn’s

As a user experience designer, I have to balance creativity with properly understanding the user’s needs. Part of this process is to understand when best practice design should be used, and where I have a little more room for creativity.

I recently finished up some work for one of the largest banks in Australia on a project involving lots of dashboards and graphs. When we first started out, we went extremely wide with our ideas, including some weird, some whacky and some awesome looking visualisations that we thought people would love.

The result?

People had no idea what they were looking at. They were confused with the stuff we put in front of them, and only when we put simple line graphs, pie charts and bar charts in front of them; things made sense. Relying on normal, expected ways to convey information sometimes makes it easier for people to process and not be distracted by it’s beauty.

Likewise, a great UX designer knows when to use these standard accepted usability patterns, and when to break them. A current project I’m working on right now involves the user being able to:

  • Select a bill
  • Look at the items in the bill
  • De-select an item, and pay the rest

“Simple!”, we thought, we’d use Apple’s edit functionality from their Mail app.

Design patterns in context: Apple’s mail

When we tested it though, none of our users knew to click “edit” to bring up the selection options to un-tick an item. Further investigation found that because users weren’t familiar with the process of only partially paying a bill, they weren’t looking for an “edit” button and got stuck. We learnt that context plays a huge part in knowing when to “borrow” an idea and when to come up with your own.

When it doesn’t go according to plan…

Likewise, there are times when copying others doesn’t always help and often makes things worse. For example, CAPTCHA’s were once a popular way of helping to prevent spambots from signing up on websites by using those annoying pictures that users had to type out into boxes (often getting a few wrong in the process!)

These still exist, even on modern websites like Facebook, but why?

Our old foe: CAPTCHA’s

Now, there are lots of different ways to design around old fashioned design patterns instead of copying existing solutions, such as implementing the spam check into javascript, or ask users a simple question to answer instead.

Apple is no stranger to usability issues either, and iOS’s Clock/Alarm app is one that could have “borrowed” ideas from others.

Apple’s convoluted alarm clock

Those familiar with iOS are probably used to seeing the Clock/Alarm (I’m a regular user of it’s snooze functionality…) and might have experienced the same frustrations too. Editing a time on the clock involves clicking on “Edit” first, before clicking on the actual time, and then performing an odd scroll up/down function. Compare this to Android’s widely accepted alternative:

Android’s Alarm Clock

That’s right, it shows an ACTUAL clock that you can move the hands to the time you want to wake up. Simple.

When we’re designing experiences for people to use, we need to think about the context they’re in, and when is best to use the things we know about design already. At a general level, best practise includes how to:

1. Understand page hierarchy

It’s simple: Keep the important titles in larger sizes, trickle down to smaller sizes for things like body text. Use white space to allow information to breathe, and remember that in the vast majority of world; we read top to bottom, left to right.

2. Design with mobile in mind

Mobile users accounted for 40% of page views in 2014. If your product is going to be used by mobile users, you can’t ignore their needs. Make sure that the page scales to a readable format, words are correctly sized, and buttons are large enough to click on.

3. “Chunk” Information

People remember more information if it’s broken down into smaller pieces. Don’t overload users with paragraphs of instructions and text, they’ll just get bored and leave.

4. Stay consistent

Using different sizes, fonts, colours and layouts just confuses your users. Use templates and make sure things remain consistent across the whole experience, or your users will forget they’re still using the same product.

5. And most importantly: Remain as simple as possible, but not any simpler

Remove irrelevant things and keep the focus on the content, but make sure you’re not alienating your users by hiding everything to keep the interface clean. It will confuse and annoy people.

Follow these principles, and you’re ensuring that you’re stealing from the best AND staying creative. When you’re next designing something, just remember that it’s OK to keep using the classic hamburger icon for menus, depending on what you’re using it for.

Just don’t steal any TVs.