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Imitation: the sincerest form of flattery?

See plans and pricing

Lately we’ve been working on the promotional marketing site for quplo. It’s a challenge. We’ve never built something like this before so it’s definitely uncharted territory, which means we need to do a lot of research and thinking in order to figure out what our site needs to say and how it should be presented.

“Seriously?”

We got started on the promotional site last week. It looks like this:

The quplo promotional homepage

The quplo promotional homepage

See something familiar here? Well, perhaps. We showed it to our colleague Chris at Q42 and his response was “Seriously?”¬†Apparently our design looked a lot like 37signals Basecamp homepage:

37signals' Basecamp homepage

37signals' Basecamp homepage

I guess we can admit that’s true. But is “seriously?” really the right question here? The immediate assumption was that we hadn’t thought about what our promotional homepage should communicate and just copied Basecamp. But unlike user interfaces where you can follow basic design patterns and conventions, there’s no library to refer to when designing a marketing site. You just have to use common sense and look at the best examples you can find for inspiration.

We decided not to follow through on this exact design, simply because we felt people may be distracted by its similarity to Basecamp. But it raises an interesting question: how far can you go before being labeled a thief or copycat? 37signals has posted about its “See Plans and Pricing” button and how it tested different labels until it found the best conversion. They shared that information openly. Why not use it to our advantage? Do we really have to go through the entire process of learning what to label our primary call to action just because using “Plans and Pricing” would be “ripping off” 37signals? And this applies to other aspects of a marketing site, too, like how to display different plans, having a product tour consisting of screenshots, and certain language around software-as-a-service agreements.

Inspiration versus stealing

Coincidentally, 37signals’ Ryan Singer wrote a blog post yesterday about this very topic, discussing how you turn inspiration into skill. He talks about how despite being inspired by a lot of design work, his designs aren’t really affected by them; that is, he doesn’t find that his style changes as a result of being inspired. Then he asks the question of how you learn from inspiration and improve your skills as a result. That question is pretty relevant to the problem we’re tackling: we’re trying to figure out what aspects of promotional marketing sites that other companies have made are universal and valuable enough for us to take something away from them.

Going back to the “See plans and pricing” button that 37signals uses on the Basecamp homepage, which is a great example, we can ask ourselves a couple of questions. Obviously 37signals has indicated that this button works really well for them, so to throw away their learning would be unwise. But what parts of the button contributed to it being the best option for them? They A/B tested different labels and found that this one works best. But did it work best because it’s the best label, or was it a combination of the label and the button’s form factor, its position on the page, the color of its gradient and drop shadow, the typography and kerning they chose? How can you tell, or even learn about the minute details that contributed to the success of this particular design element, without being 37signals themselves?

So do we use “See plans and pricing” on our site – even if it’s just as a first option – instead of something like “Free trial” or “Sign up now”? Do we bet that what 37signals learned will apply to us, or do we veer away from that and do something else in fear of being branded thieves for our efforts?

What do you think?

We want to know from you: is it okay to “copy” if the thing you’re copying is so widely used that it’s essentially standard? What’s the difference between learning from someone else and a design pattern? Is it uncourteous – bad netiquette – to do this? Should we care if it means better conversion on our site?

And finally, is change for the sake of change really a valid argument?

Want to see how our marketing site looks right now? Sign up for the quplo beta, which is now available, and you’ll get access to our promo prototype.

2 Comments

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  • It’s a few design patterns made into a page. The individual parts are not of proprietary value – it is the implementation that counts. And the quplo design ends up being sub par to the basecamp one (although I imagine it was not a final version).

    Just because the designs were similar to the point that you could say there’s a left blurb panel (block of text with pricing button below), a right screenshot panel, and a details panel below, does not infer stealing. Within those parameters, there are a million details that can be changed, and that’s what counts.

    Additionally, neither of the 2 homepages are central to the primary function of its respective service (one is project management, another is prototyping), which further makes it irrelevant how similar they are to each other.

    by matija • Jun 18th 2010 • 20:06

  • O EM GEE!! A header, two columns and a FOOTER!!!11! PLAGIARISM!! CALL THE POLICE!

    Christ, if that criteria was enough to call out IP theft we could never build new buildings because, holy crap, they all have foundations, walls and windows.

    I mean hell, you’re talking about layout and copy. It’s safe to say that from the first printed page until now just about everything’s been done. The things we see most are the ones that work best, so start there and improve it.

    If 37 Signal’s site is “da bomb” then play with it, see what parts you like and build those, then see how you can do the parts you don’t like better. It’s not rocket surgery.

    Also, your font is hideous, the form fields for commenting have terrible colors and borders that don’t fit the rest of the site, and the “Submit Comment” button is a total ripoff of appyourmac.com ^_^

    by zomgsauce • Jun 18th 2010 • 22:06

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