To innovate or imitate?
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In the fast-paced and ever-changing world of digital technology, you'll often hear the mantra "innovate or die." Although there may be some truth in this, the reality is that tech companies are often just as likely to copy the competition as they are to distinguish themselves from the competition. This is particularly true when it comes to designing your web site.
As an example, take a look at the two menus below, one from the web site of Home Depot, the other from the web site of Lowes. Far from trying to be different, the two companies have made their menus strikingly similar, even down to the use of phrases like 'Outdoor Living.'
Home Depot menu Lowes menu
There are two good reasons that it's (sometimes) better to imitate. First, sometimes there are simply only a few good ways to do something, and anything else you do would be less effective. Think of the wheel. Someone else thought of it before you, but it would be foolish to reject using wheels because you need to innovate and be different.
Second, one of the best ways to make your web site easy to use is to follow well-established conventions. If you put a shopping cart icon on your site, you don't need to explain to users what it's for. Likewise with the now-pervasive "hamburger menu" on the mobile-friendly version of sites.
Here's an example of trying to innovate when it might have been better to imitate. There is a local coffee chain called Woods Coffee. As part of their branding around the "Woods" theme, they label their coffee sizes "Spruce," "Cedar," "Redwood," and "Giant Redwood."
Woods Coffee menu
Sure, it's cute. But can I tell you how many times I have stood in the coffee line at Woods and heard someone order a Tall Mocha or Grande Americano? Like it or not, Starbucks has established a convention for how the different sizes of espresso drinks are named. And since Starbucks is everywhere, just about everyone who drinks coffee knows that convention.
If you really want to avoid the Starbucks convention and have customers actually use the terms on your menu, you'll have better luck if you follow another convention than if you do your own thing. Here's a menu from The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, another Starbucks competitor. Not as cute, but customers understand the sizes immediately, and order using "small," "regular," and "large."
Coffee Bean menu
The moral of the story is that it's important to know when to be different and when to follow the herd. If you want branding on your web site, do it with the color scheme, or font choices, or the images you use. When it comes to, say, how navigation works, it's best to shamelessly copy what everyone else is doing.