Why does every homepage look the same?

Cheerful-and-generic illustrations are suddenly everywhere. Have designers lost their creative edge?

Slack — Messaging for teams

My team has used Slack for three years to message one another at work, yet somehow I just recently stumbled upon their website homepage (above). I was struck by its simple design and messaging — the clean white background, bold declarative headline, simply-worded description, intuitive entry point, and of course, the friendly illustration of people enjoying their (life-sized) tool. I could be those people.

We happened to be in the midst of our own site redesign at the time of my discovery, so I held Slack up as a model for the simple and direct approach we should pursue.

Having spent time inspecting the Slack homepage, a strange thing happened. I started noticing their theme everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Below are a few examples to paint a picture.

Airtable — Enhanced spreadsheets
Gusto — HR software
Shortlist — Contractor management
Intercom — Customer chat engagement
Quip — Collaborative documents
Plastiq — Use credit cards for rent
Zendesk — Customer service platform
HelpScout — (Another) customer service platform

Several theories came to mind to explain the peculiar experience of déjà vu:

  • 9 companies had independently reached the optimal website design
  • Lead designers from 9 companies all graduated from the same school
  • Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and tech startups like to flatter one another
  • There was a glitch in the Matrix, and my brain was being fed a loop

Upon further reflection, this is just the latest in a series of website hero trends over the past five years:

  • First the big, slightly opaque real-life image with white text overlay
  • Then video backgrounds, telling a user’s story through the art of silent film
  • Next gradient and textured wallpaper backgrounds, often with screenshots of the application
  • Now the white background with cheery, generic illustrations reign

Certainly herd mentality must explain part of the trendiness of homepage design. When someone comes up with a fresh new look, others who enjoy its aesthetic will be bound to emulate — in fact, that was exactly the case in my discovery of Slack’s homepage. But another, more practical force is at work as well: the training of users.

Whenever you land on a new website, there is a moment of orientation as you try to understand where things are, and to find the right information or button. The more unique the site layout, the longer it will take for you to get your bearings. Thus there is a distinct advantage to organizing your content in the same way as other sites your visitors have been trained on — they will have a feeling of home when they land, and will have a better chance of finding what they are looking for.

This lesson is broadly applicable when designing user experiences/interfaces. In most cases, conventions have been established by other sites — for example, in what a login form looks like, or how to browse and add products to a shopping cart, or navigate a multi-tabbed dashboard. If you deviate from these norms, you must re-train your users, so it’s usually best not to reinvent the wheel. Most of our clients, for example, utilize our Canvas design to get a modern look out of the gate, and focus on their features.

In the case of our homepage redesign this year, we opted for a very similar layout to Slack’s: a (mostly) white background, large bold headline, simple description, and big call-to-action to encourage our visitors to talk to us. In a radical act of defiance, we opted to show a real-life image of a happy client in place of the generic illustration. Traditionally in custom web development, it is rare to see someone smiling at the end of a project, so we figured we should highlight what makes us unique.

AirDev homepage redesign, Fall 2018

For more insights from the AirDev team, check out our blog at airdev.co/blog. AirDev’s mission is to make custom software accessible to everyone. We offer fixed prices & timelines, money-back guarantees, and unparalleled speed and flexibility — all with the aim of bringing great ideas to life.