Copying Designs Doesn’t Work, And Here’s Why — Smashing Magazine

There is a kind of cognitive dissonance that haunts designers: the genuine desire to be truly innovative and original while simultaneously trawling the web for inspiration and design ideas.

I doubt many designers set out with the intention of copying Airbnb, Apple or Stripe. But they are such beautifully designed experiences that it is difficult does not to be inspired to some extent – even unconsciously.

While the unlimited choice of a blank Figma card can be overwhelming, the answer is rarely to copy another. The plagiarism issue aside, it is hard to replicate the magic of another user experience and not lose the magic that makes it work.

Do you really understand why it worked? Did you lose the secret sauce somewhere in the replication? Can you then innovate your own ideas on them?

First, let me give you an example of an industry where it has been common to copy what works from younger and more agile startups: banking business.

Today I published some of the findings from a 900-day study of 12 UK banks called The UX of Banking. As a lifelong reader of Smashing Mag, I wanted to give you all a modified excerpt from that article and then some advice on how to effectively draw inspiration from others.

Monzo Bank was heavily copied in 2020

Back in 2020 (when I started this study), I was critical of how most of the established banks handled basic card management functions. They lacked context, the designs themselves were really bad, and there were fundamental usability issues.

New features, like freezing your card or showing your PIN in the app, were simply added as new rows – similar to a settings page. This was the predictable risk of adding new functionality for decades without rebalancing the core user experience.

Mobile bank card management features
Mobile bank card management features in 2020: Barclays, First Direct, HSBC. (Large preview)

But unencumbered by the way things used to be, Monzo, Starling and Revolut seized the opportunity to design something that felt intuitive for this new paradigm. This example is from the UK, but it applies to many global brands such as Robinhood, Venmo, N26 and CashApp.

Since 2020, there has been a noticeable effort to replicate what works in the UK banking scene, and the experiences are very similar.

Monzo App in 2020
Monzo app interface in 2020. (Large preview)

In particular, the order and location of the most common card management functions — as shown above on Monzo in 2020. This is what has clearly been a massive ‘inspiration’ for other banks.

The most common card management functions in mobile banking
This is what the banking user interface looks like today, just a few years later. (Large preview)

This applies to both the visual aspects of design (ie how it looks) and the functional architecture of managing your map (ie how it works).

Barclays may have more than 80,000 employees, but it seems they have the same gray Figma habits as the rest of us.

The risk of copying

Now let me show you an example where copying can get you into trouble: chasing ‘click parity’, copying a simple flow that you don’t understand, and not considering that the best experiences are often the longest.

Here’s the number of clicks it takes to order a new card at each of the 12 banks I tracked:

A graph showing the number of clicks it takes to order a new card at each of the 12 banks
With a Metro Bank it only takes 4 clicks to order a new card, and with HSBC you need 12 clicks. (Large Preview)

As an analyst (and at first glance) it may appear that Metro has the best user journey. But in this case, the number of clicks is the wrong metric to worry about.

There seems to be very little positive correlation between what I believe to be the better experiences (eg Revolut, Monzo and Starling) and the number of clicks.

Rather, it is more likely to have too few clicks indication that there is not enough coherence (or that it is crammed into one screen).

It’s almost like the obvious design cheats: use more padding, space things out, and give yourself more room to add context.

Let’s consider a few nuances for this specific user journey (ie losing your bank card):

  • 📅 Rare use
    Most people don’t order new cards every month. So this is not a ‘power feature’ and they are not hoping to optimize for efficiency.
  • 😰 Negative connotations
    Most of the time, you order a new card because of a negative event (eg stolen, lost or damaged). You are probably already anxious, stressed and frustrated.
  • ⌛️ Time sensitive
    People need a new card fast. The context behind speed of delivery is important, rather than the speed of order the card.

To summarize: People who have lost their cards are likely to seek security and convenience over efficiency. It is the tone of the user journey, and as a designer you must pay close attention to it.

Metro has so few clicks because it’s essentially one screen with two buttons. You have no option to keep the same PIN (for example, if you damaged your card at home), which means you have to wait for both a card and a PIN to appear.

The two clicks saved by not asking for this preference forced me to wait another two days before I could use my card.

A graph showing time to have an active bank card
How many days do you need to get an active card? With HSBC you need 3 days, with Santander 6 days. (Large Preview)

And those are the two metrics I will measure success by for this user journey:

  • How good was the experience (qualitative)?
  • How quickly can they use their card (quantitatively)?

If you were to copy Revolut’s flow but remove the features your product doesn’t have, the 11-click process might not feel the same.

Or you can take inspiration from Monzo’s ‘map selection screen’, but if you’ve combined it with another step they don’t have, you might lose the magic of why it works.

Even banks that have basically the same feature set are copying the same ideas with really wide execution quality.

Note: It’s an industry that should be relatively easy to copy ideas, but shows how subtly difficult it can be.

Do and don’t implement inspiration

To be perfectly clear, I am an advocate of leaning in Familiarity Bias — a tendency for people to prefer (ie choose) products, services and opportunities that feel familiar to them.

So here are a few practical ones let’s do it and do not of building familiar feeling products without losing the magical spark:

✅ Things to do:

  • Try to identify the psychological biases at play.
    Is the user frustrated? Sad? Are they trying to avoid losing or is their decision making skewed by something else? Ultimately, do they resemble the same biases that affect your product?
  • Can you lean into a familiar mechanism and save some onboarding effort?
    For example, TikTok popularized the ‘swipe to watch’ mechanism. There is no shame in using the same navigation style; your users will instantly feel more familiar with your product. Remember: familiarity is a shortcut to learning.
  • Be inspired by the ingenuity of the execution, not the visuals.
    It’s not productive to fall in love with Shopify’s checkout process and convince yourself that you need to copy it. Instead, try to identify how they’ve cleverly innovated on subtle and specific problems (ie managing global shipping addresses on one page without reloading).

❌ Things to avoid:

  • Do not directly copy someone else’s design.
    You probably only see 5% of the complexity, and the other 95% may contain unexpected nuances that led to visible decisions.
  • Don’t assume you have to have feature parity.
    In other words, just because a company you admire has features X, Y, and Z in the main navigation doesn’t mean you should. What will your users actually do?
  • Don’t forget that your start-up is not Airbnb and you need to educate people about what you actually do.
    In other words, when a product becomes a household name, they often don’t have to spend time (ie clicks) teaching the user what they actually do – everyone already knows. But you sure do.

I don’t have the balls to replicate Apple’s magic (and if I did, frankly, I’d probably keep it to myself and make a fortune).

But hopefully this serves as an important reminder not to blindly follow the competition.

To read the full (and free) study on UX of Banking, visit Built for Mars.

Smashing Editorial(vf, yk, il)
William

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