Should You Copy a Famous Site's Design?

 
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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.
 

"Should You Copy a Famous Site's Design?"
Nielsen Norman Group, August 22, 2010
Strategy
By Jakob Nielsen

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.)

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