Design convergence is not a dirty word

Is it a bad thing that many websites are looking the same? Or are we seeing a maturing of our design patterns and improving of the user experience.

Imagine for a moment the you are perusing the fiction in your local bookstore. You pick up a novel only to discover that it is a large print book where the lines run across an entire double page spread. Confused you put the book down and pick up the next one.

The designer has laid this novel out more like a magazine than a traditional novel. The pages are full of pull-out quotes, bold headlines and several columns of text. After trying to read a couple of pages you put it down in disgust.

The final book you pickup is the craziest of all. Instead of reading from front to back the designer has reversed the order of the book. You start with the last page and work your way through the story to the front. What the hell is going on? This is not what a novel looks like.

You see we have certain expectations when it comes to a novel. They have a certain layout and designers work within those constraints. They produce beautiful covers, gorgeous typography and an enjoyable reading experience. But they don’t mess with the fundamental layout which is consistent across all novels.

A disdain for design convergence

Why then do we accept this as a sensible design practice for novels and yet reject it for the web? There is a real distain amongst web designers towards the idea of convergence. The idea that all websites are beginning to look the same.

Recently I saw this tweet:

Which one of the two possible websites are you currently designing?

Apparently there are now only two designs for websites.
Apparently there are now only two designs for websites.

Dripping in sarcasm it implied that modern web design has been reduced to two possibilities. Now, I don’t believe this is the case. But even if it was, would that be such a bad thing for the users experience? Would it be bad for design?

Convergence is inevitable

The longer an object is around the more its design standardises. Take for example the automobile or the bicycle. When these were first invented their designs varied. But over time they began to converge. They converged on an optimal design but also on one that the majority of people were familiar with.

Early bike designs were widely different. But as time passed standards emerged.
Early bike designs were widely different. But as time passed standards emerged.

The same is true for websites. As our industry matures so do our design patterns. We have discovered that some things work better than others and so are designs have converged on those. Users of also come to expect certain things from the layout of a website. They have expectations about the position of the logo or search box. They make assumptions about how navigation should work.

Convergence is a good thing

Surely then, convergence is a good thing. It shows a maturing of our understanding and creates a better user experience. The user is no longer required to relearn the interface of every website they visit.

But what about innovation, I hear you cry? How are the interfaces of websites ever going to get better if nobody tries anything new? This is a fair question and I’m not suggesting we should never innovate.

What I’m challenging is the assumption that convergence is lazy design. That using “the same old layout” is a sign that the designer is taking shortcuts or just does not care. That he or she is a bad designer.

Instead I believe we should see sticking to conventions as the sensible option. We should see it as the thing good designers do. That we should have a good reason for breaking with these conventions. A reason better than us tiring of designing within the same old constraints.

After all, good design is about working within constraints. Book designers still get a lot of latitude in their designs without changing the reading experience. Car manufacturers produce stunning designs. All within the best practice which has emerged within the industry.

Why then can’t we accept that web design has some emerging expectations and best practice? Why can’t we embrace those constraints. After all we used to produce some amazing designs with a limited colour palette and a handful of system fonts.

Related Post

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  • andrewareoff

    But then who decided that the constraints we are now seeing (Bootstrap, Squarespace, Material Design) are the best for most websites across the board?

    • It is essentially an evolutionary process. Over time the market hones designs to those that provide the best return on investment. Also I am not suggesting that there is a right solution across the board. I’m just saying that there is nothing inherently wrong in using standardised approaches. It is not a reflection on the designer or an implication that they are in some way lazy. They are just using the most cost-effective method appropriate in that situation.

      • Che Tamahori

        Great post Paul.

        One of the weaknesses of the tendency towards convergence is that we often don’t know if we’re converging towards high performing patterns.

        The “hamburger” menu icon is an example of people converging on a poorly performing design pattern. And now, even when there are numerous studies showing that a “MENU” button works much better, we are slow to embrace this evidence and converge on the higher performing pattern.

        Evolutionary processes can be disappointingly slow; how can we improve our ability to converge towards the patterns that maximise value to clients?

        • Jason Pamental

          First off: thanks for writing the post Paul; I think it’s an important discussion.

          I think that Che hits it on the head here, and what is at the heart of my own objection to the particular FORMS of convergence we’re seeing. They tend to be ones like the hamburger icon that designers seem to favor regardless of usability data, and ones that seem attractive to both designers and clients but likewise require a lot of effort on the part of the clients and prove to reduce engagement (the ‘huge photo with some text overlaid with an arrow at the bottom to let you know there’s more content’ one). Those I tend to think of as more self-indulgent rather than lazy, but that’s splitting hairs.

          And it’s entirely valid that one or both of those COULD be legitimately good decisions based on audience, goals and testing; but I’m pretty confident that it would be a narrow set of circumstances, entirely out of proportion with the volume of sites we see with this exact style.

          There are indeed many patterns that are worth using; the challenge for us as designers is to evaluate them and make conscious choices rather than simply go ‘all-in’ with hero photos, hamburgers and card stacks.

          • Part of the problem is that we are in an awkward transition period. This kind of evolutionary convergence takes time to weed out the weaker design patterns. Eventually things like the huge photograph with the text overlay will disappear simply because they do not perform well. But I admit that it can be frustratingly slow.

            Also, that wasn’t really the point of my post. What I was really driving at is that we should be careful criticising those that choose to stick to a convention. We can end up creating a stigma around a perfectly good layout simply because it has been used a lot. We shouldn’t reject ideas simply based on the frequency with which they are used. As you say, we should reject an idea because it doesn’t perform well. That should be the real test. But of course that kind of data driven design is seen by some as repressing their creativity!

        • You make a good point in relationship to the hamburger menu. I hadn’t thought of that. Of course ironically because people use the hamburger menu so much in designs it is becoming synonymous with menu. Essentially users are learning the convention even though it is not necessarily the best one. I guess that is the thing with the evolutionary approach. It doesn’t necessarily produce the best solution, just one that works well enough.

          • Jason Pamental

            I think that’s at the heart of what troubles me: WE are getting used to the hamburger menu, but it still tests so poorly that I can only conclude that users in general still just don’t get it. That’s what I was driving at in my earlier response: designers/developers use these trendy solutions without stopping to realize that we live in a bubble, and the ‘rest of the world’ simply don’t know these trends as well as we do, leaving them to struggle.

        • andrewareoff

          And when you see a hamburger icon on a desktop version of a site because the designer deems it to be cleaner and less cluttered, that is just a fail in my opinion. Put menu items in front of people and they will understand that they can click on them to get what they want, if they are named correctly. It’s like pressing latte, cappucino, filter, hot water on a coffee vending machine.

          This is where I hate standardisation and the decision of an elite who push these things forward.

      • andrewareoff

        I agree about the evolution of design and it would be terrible if we were still designing websites that looked and functioned like they did 15 years ago, with some exceptions which we could do well to learn again from.

  • David McCallum

    It’s “disdain,” not “distain.” :) Cheers.

      • David McCallum

        I am wondering if you’ve set some kind of strange ironic “shame” trap for readers like me, with your reaction as proudly “disdain”-ful of spelling. It didn’t work on me. Please don’t make assumptions about me. I haven’t made any about you.

        • Jason

          Exactly, what a great way to be a dick to someone who just wants to help out by correcting a mistake.

        • chuckpenz

          It certainly does seem like he’s just waiting to drop that link on someone. I find it ironic that the post is about standardizing design if he doesn’t care to standardize spelling. Your excellent analogy of opening different books and finding different layouts unfortunately applies to grammar and spelling as well – imagine if we opened books and all the grammar and spelling was different.

          When the reader comes across a misspelled word it tends to disrupt their reading flow and whether you care or not it does hurt credibility.

      • Manu S.

        Well spelling is about standards and not fashion. Just like this article. And pointing out typos is as helpful as saying “Hey there’s a bug on your website. Maybe you did not notice it so I tell you”.
        English is not my mother tongue and I wondered if distain was a word I did not know or if it was a typo. By rejecting David’s comment, you’re a dick to David and to all your readers.

  • Dave Bowers

    I understand the concept, in fact I wrote a page appropriating the idea of ‘Tropes’ (widely understood constructs in TV/movie writing that simply communicate a particular message without too much exposition) for the web; in other words using convention to aid user understanding: https://www.evolutia.co.uk/blog/web-tropes/

    However, Tropes can also seem hackneyed and lazy. We have to ask, what value can we provide as web designers over the likes of Squarespace, Wix or WordPress themes? These cookie cutter designs can easily be achieved with a little knowledge – it’s our job to prove how we can value above and beyond that.

    • You’re absolutely right Dave. Ultimately comes down to proving value. However there are occasions when designing an entirely unique site is not necessarily the best way of creating value. And that is the point of my post. We cannot presume someone is a bad designer just because they use tried and tested layouts. These might actually be the way of providing best value for the client and that is what good design should ultimately do.

      • Dave Bowers

        Goodness it’s tricky isn’t it? Our approach at Evolutia is to provide a strategy, pull together and coordinate great suppliers in different areas so that the sites we produce have great copy, photography, video, motion graphics etc. Quite often the vehicle for conveying this content is heavily reliant on convention meaning that the bare bones of the site are quite pedestrian, but the resulting value of the site to the client is so much more than could be achieved by – for example – an amateur with a WP theme.

        • I couldn’t agree more. You can still create an amazing and unique site using a fairly pedestrian layout. It is the content and aesthetic design that really makes a website shine.

  • Henning Fischer

    webdesigners who think they are “artists” are in trouble now :D . btw. very nice design ;)

    • Thanks. I would like to claim I produced it but it was created by the very clever Ed Merritt over at headscape.co.uk

  • intronaut

    You could add the ecomerce slideshow/products and would cover 90% of the purpose websites have in the three templates.

    It’s not a bad thing, to have conventions that have been tested/tried to help these goals/purpose. And in some cases, the bare minimum (ie squarespace) is the right execution.

    What I think is the issue with those conventions (not with them directly but with their use) is for them to be accepted/propose without critical thinking by the designer/team, and for the inherent simplification of what in 2016 is more than just one layout that presents information.

    • You are of course 100% right. Just because sticking with the convention is no bad thing it shouldn’t be done blindly. It should be a conscious decision and not simply a knee-jerk reaction driven out of laziness. Of course we cannot presume to know whether a designer has put this thought in or not. That is why we need to be careful when we criticise people in this regards.

  • Tim Woodruff

    Part of what we do as designers is to make things easy to use. If a design is innovative but most users get frustrated with it, then it fails. I think that we should focus less on uniqueness of layouts, and more on the uniqueness of the design elements (colors, icons, textures, and sliders). We don’t have to design new layout every time we do a brochure. We just rethink our design elements. It should be the same with web. I follow this approach, and it’s incredibly freeing because I can make a web experience that is fresh yet familiar for any user.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head there Tim. Making our designs unique is important but we should do it with branding and positioning rather than layout wherever possible.

  • Matt Barnes

    Relying on established design patterns gives us the opportunity to solve more interesting problems as creative professionals. I suspect our time and our clients’ budgets are better spent on things like crafting great content than on coming up with a new fancy way of doing the layout.

  • WassailAnyone?

    Caution, we’ve tried this before. It gave us 12-tone method in music (unlistenable) and brutalism in architecture (uninhabitable).

  • Drew McDowell

    Really great article, Paul. I feel like I see articles and tweets like the one mentioned weekly and, as a web designer, I agree with your response 100%.

    I also constantly see “website pick of the week” articles featuring uber non-conventional web pages where the web designer created a really beautiful graphical layout, but I look at it and have absolutely no idea how to use it or even why I would want to.

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