(This is a draft post, which needs a lot of refinement.)
- Logo, top left.
- Menu, across the top (maybe a burger).
- Search/login, top right.
- Massive hero image front and centre.
- Three blocks of text + image content (from the blog, perhaps?)
- A full width block of colour.
- A full width block of white, with text.
- A dark footer.
The secret formula
Why does it feel like almost every website follows this worn-out template nowadays? Like the science behind the perfect pop song, has someone cracked the formula for web design?
Is this good or bad for the industry? What about for users?
Mobile Phone Design
Let’s examine the good. Designing a product (or in this case, a website) that users intuitively know where to go to find the information they want, is an admirable principle for a designer to hold. The classic example is the iPhone. The unremarkable black slab of glass. You could hand it to someone with no prior knowledge of a phone and they would likely figure out how to turn it on and access it within a few minutes, no user manual required. After the iPhone, virtually every phone manufacturer adopted a similar design for their handset. This means, learn it once and once only (for the most part).
Mobile phones used to have a variety of form factors, with various combinations of button layouts. This provided choices for customers who wanted to express themselves in their own way, with their own weird handset purchasing decisions. But it re-introduced a learning curve whenever it was time to upgrade.
Reducing barriers to entry is important when you want your product to be accessible to as many as possible, no arguments there. But something gets lots in the process in the race to the most minimal piece of plastic/aluminium/glass form factor.
The same trajectory can be applied to web design over the years. In the 90s and 00s, websites were sometimes chaotic. Playing audio when you arrived on a homepage, bombarding you with animated backgrounds, flash website intros or scrolling news tickers. The early internet certainly had a sense of wonder to it when you didn’t know what to expect when someone gave you a web address to visit when you got home to log on.
Largely that’s been done away with and it’s for the best. I don’t want to be caught off guard by an MP3 file playing in the background on some tab I have open in my browser. Similarly, I don’t think it’s a good use of my time to spend ages poking around a badly laid out homepage or navigate a bunch of broken links just to find some specific piece of information.
The rise of these clone-like sites is likely the result of some combination of:
- an increase in availability of good quality research on information architecture, UX and web design from the likes of NNG,
- freelancers spinning up basic wordpress templates for business clients on a budget
- websites copying other websites assuming they have done their research on layout
- user habit forming
That last one is interesting enough to remark upon. Just go with the universal layout and a lot of your users will already know how to find their way around (in theory).
There are exceptions to the rule. Brutalism has carved out a niche for itself and it’s a trend I’d like to see more of, if only just to act as a palette cleanser now and again.