“Make it like Apple!” Why imitation is the sincerest form of failure
These are the words that make every UX designer’s heart sink: “Make it work like [insert generic tech-industry leader]’s site!”
The moments when a client throws out your initial ideas and pleads with you to replicate their favourite company’s homepage are the stuff of nightmares.
Now, I don’t want to take any shots at clients. Being a good client is often as hard as being a good designer. I’ve been on both sides of the fence and taking on the client role, it’s not usually long before you find yourself saying exactly the same things that make your teeth grind when you hear them from your own clients.
Still, there’s a particular kind of client who is incredibly difficult to work with and, as designers, we quickly need to learn to identify this particular attitude and find our own ways of overcoming it.
Usually, you’ll hear this from the numbers people – money guys for whom the world is ranked into a hierarchy. In this world, there is only one right way of doing things and the only way to succeed is to do just that. You can see the elementary logic in it: Apple is the biggest tech company in the world, their site content and advertising is beautiful; surely, if we just do what they do, we’ll succeed?
Well, no. Not at all.
First thing’s first, Apple is rolling in cash. If your company is as big as Apple, then you probably don’t need my advice to succeed and have no need to continue reading. Apple have millions of dollars to spend on hiring the best creative and UX design agencies in the world to produce incredible, award-winning content and a UI that makes everything else look slightly wonky.
With the best will in the world, producing a site of the quality that Apple is capable of, is beyond the budget and talent of almost everyone other than Apple. It’s simply not realistic.
However let’s pretend it is in fact possible for any agency to achieve the results Apple can on a fraction of the budget. But even then, you wouldn’t necessarily want to. Here’s why:
Apple isn’t desperate for money
If you’re an Apple superfan, furiously refreshing their store page to be one of the first to order the brand-new iPhone on the day of release, only to find the website interface is frustrating and awkward, are you going to swear off Apple and go buy an Android phone? No, of course not.
Apple’s UI doesn’t need to be good, so why would we assume that Apple’s site is the gold standard that we should be aiming for, even if it looks stunning? Do we know if the user feedback supports our assumption?
Apple’s site makes the elementary mistake of having a huge drop-down menu for navigation. I’d be interested to see what the user feedback and bounce rate is on that. If you don’t have the brand loyalty that Apple commands, you might need to do better than Apple has bothered to do.
Apple is a premium product
There’s a good reason why Apple is charging over £1,100 for its cheapest iPhone nowadays. It’s the same reason why Apple phones are made of glass and metal, while Huawei are selling similar-specced phones made of plastic for £300: Apple is a prestigious product. Having the latest iPhone is a status symbol – an accomplishment.
As such, struggling a little to navigate their beautiful-looking site makes you feel even more like you’ve worked to earn an iPhone to impress your friends. When you’re in Apple’s position, having a sucky UI can actually help contribute to the user experience. If you’re not in Apple’s position, a bad UI can harm your conversion.
Furthermore, in general…
You aren’t Apple
Are you selling high-tech smartphones to the hipster elite, capitalising on their vast expendable income? No? Then why do you think copying a company that’s trying to do that will get you success with your users?
The most fundamental principle of UX design is to build your site around your users. If your users are not exactly the same group as Apple customers, then why would copying Apple’s site be the right strategy?
Two Apples aren’t better than one
To take this argument ad absurdum, let’s push the realms of plausibility even further and say that you aren’t any different from Apple: let’s say you’re selling almost exactly the same product as Apple; let’s say you’re selling to almost exactly the same group of customers as Apple; let’s even say you have exactly the same budget and resources that Apple have. Still, why do you want to be like Apple?
The tech industry is all about disruption. As a brand-new industry full of start-ups, most companies are in a David-and-Goliath position where a young company with limited resources and a slingshot idea are taking down the big industry leaders. That industry-disrupting idea is what’s important, not the money and power. That tiny little idea is what makes you different and that’s what sells.
If you’re offering exactly the same experience and products as Apple to Apple users, what reason are you giving them to switch from Apple to you? As such, whether you’re in the same position with the same resources or not, copying another company is a fundamental mistake, regardless of the circumstances.
Making the case to be unique
I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here. No UX designer would turn up to a pitch meeting with screenshots from Apple’s site proposing recreating the site exactly. However, when you turn up to a meeting with a client and they declare they want you to make something that looks like Apple or Facebook, what can you do?
Well, the joy of user experience design is that there’s very little room for argument. If you’re a graphic designer, your client can always say they don’t like your graphics, but as a user experience designer, only the user can judge you.
Remind your client that they are trying to appeal to their customers and we can’t make assumptions about what their customers want until you’ve done the research and conducted the interviews. Assure them that if the users want and react well to a site that looks exactly like Apple, then that’s what you’ll work to produce.
Try presenting them with good and bad examples of sites designed by their direct competitors as an example of the UX work being done in their field, as opposed to Apple’s area. This will highlight examples of UX that’s directly relevant to their products, trigger jealousy over good UX and a feeling of superiority over bad UX. Ask them how they feel about their competitor sites and, better, ask them to ask their customer-facing staff what their customers say. Begin the UX research in the pitch meeting and lay down the groundwork.
Of course, you come to the meeting armed with your pitch, but you should always have some back-up examples of your own success stories in your pocket, ready to pull out if things go wrong. Show your process – this client had this problem and this is how we solved it. Try to draw them into a practical conversation about doing real work, rather than just some pie-in-the-sky concept of being a tech-industry leader.
Overall, make your client feel listened to and appreciated – flatter their ideas – then pull them back down to earth to actually do the work. If that isn’t effective and your client just wants to copy the look of something they’ve seen online, then they aren’t really interested in a good user experience and nothing you do for them is going to make them happy. In those circumstances, the very best thing you can do is say “thanks, but no thanks” and walk out.
If you try to make a site that looks like Apple, you will likely make something that looks like a poor knock-off; it won’t be right for the user and the conversion rates won’t make your client happy. You’ll come out of it with low client satisfaction, poor work for your portfolio and a lot of frustration and stress.
If your client isn’t focused on their users, there is very little you can do for them.
Neil Sheppard has been a UX copywriter and content strategist for nearly a decade. Starting out as a pharmaceutical stock markets journalist, Neil quickly moved into digital copywriting, managing a team optimising product content for a busy commercial website. Nowadays, Neil helps companies create easy-to-use internal websites and digital employee manuals that make complex processes simple for everyone from CEOs to service desk agents.