Rinse and Repeat…

Thumbing through the internet is becoming an experience more akin to experiencing every day as Phil Connors*.  I stumble across a new website and have an uneasy feeling of déjà vu.  ‘Didn’t I just visit this site?’ I ask myself. ‘Yes…I recognise the plain, minimalist background, the use of sans serif type face (upper case ideally, and always in black or grey), AND the images, all laid out in geometrically perfect rows and columns’.   The whole simplistic, almost monochrome, ‘less is more’ design…it’s everywhere.

Take a look at the following screen grabs from some of the shopping and entertainment sites I’ve had a look at in the past 5 days: French Connection, Digital Spy, Firebox and Warehouse:

blocksites1

They all look a bit samey, right?  And it’s not just those of us looking for reindeer sweaters, stocking fillers and the latest Jeremy Kyle-related gossip that are all looking at almost identical websites: check out Cardiff University and FutureLearn – they may add a little more color in education, but that rudimentary design is still there: those ubiquitous ‘Windows 8’ building blocks in symmetrically pleasing layouts:

blocksites2

I’ve been using the internet for about 20 years now and before now, had never noticed this sudden move towards uniformity across websites.  Wondering whether I was on to something or just looking for patterns that weren’t there, I did a brief search on Google using the term:

Why do all websites look the same now?

What I found worried me.

What Google found is that users like websites to be simple and familiar. They (or rather, we) want websites that look like every other site in the same category. (You can find the research here with more information).

Google’s research shows that users prefer a ‘prototypical website’ (ie. one that looks like all the others in the same category) and a simple layout, both of which are fulfilled by this homepage carousel layout.

They go on to warn of anyone who advises the reader to make their own online store ‘stand out from the crowd’ by saying that this all:

“…makes sense. Imagine walking into a shop and seeing all the clothes hanging from the ceiling, only reachable by ladder. Or the checkout hidden in a cupboard along a winding corridor. You wouldn’t stay long. And you’d tell your friends to stay away too.

It’s the same online. Customers want to look at your products and then buy them, not spend an age figuring out how exactly to do that.”

Okay….I can see what is being said here.  Shoppers certainly want a stress and clutter-free experience when buying their ‘stuff’.  Fair point.  However, I’m not sure about how everyone else feels, but I am sick of the rows of soulless chain stores that look identical in every high street in every town.  For someone like me who has to travel around the UK fair bit for conferences, I hate that momentary terror I feel when I walk into an Apple Store and for those heart stopping two seconds, can’t remember if I’m in Aberdeen, Aberdaire, St Albans or St Austell.  And I never know if I’m in Top Shop, Dorothy Perkins or Argos anyway these days.  As a result, it’s often the shops with personality and an identity that do catch my eye, cluttered or colourful as they may be.  And even the most bizarre bazaar thinks twice before hanging clothes from the ceiling that can only be reached by ladder.  The goods are as accessible as everywhere else, and the checkouts are rarely at the end of some Alice in Wonderland-esque magical corridor.

Take a look at this paper written by Alexandre N. Tuch, Eva E. Presslaber, Markus Stocklin, et al entitled: The role of visual complexity and prototypicality regarding first impression of websites: working towards understanding aesthetic judgements.  The authors showed research participants a number of websites of varying levels of visual complexity, and to boil a 31 page research paper down to basics – they found that the simpler the layout, the more the viewer liked it and the more they trusted both its intent and its content.

So academic research may prove that a simpler layout is be way forward for website design.  I was vaunting the clean design of the FutureLearn site in my post last week for those very reasons because, fundamentally, I really like the style of the site and the others mentioned in this post.  And let’s not leave the elephant in the room untouched: even this very blog’s page design is starting to look a little familiar, isn’t it?   But…and here’s the thing… I like to have choice.  I like variety when browsing the web.  Do we really want everything to look the same?  Can ‘simpler’ used in this context also be equated with something else the population claims to be subjected to: dumbing-down?! Do we want a browsing experience that becomes like our real-life shopping experiences – clinical, ‘samey’ and devoid of colour and personality?

I certainly hope not.  Because even though there are some websites out there that have gone too far the other way (and check this out for sick-making), it’s our uniqueness that makes us what we are.  And a dumbed-down world means endless repeats of Celebrity come Dancing,  Michael Buble albums and websites that all look like this blog.

*Phil Connors was the character played by Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day’. 

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