Creating a ‘frictionless’ experience is often hailed as the ultimate goal in web design – building a website or app that lets you book tickets, place orders or view content without having to stop and think how to do it. We expect websites to be fast, responsive and reliable and in turn, brands are constantly looking to streamline their online experience. You can now watch a whole Netflix series without lifting a finger or place an Amazon order with just one click.
This is a vast improvement on the web’s early days, when sites were often clunky, slow and difficult to navigate. But as websites have become better, faster and smarter, they’ve also become less idiosyncratic. Across travel, retail, fashion, media and entertainment, brands have adopted similar layouts and design features – from sans serif fonts to clean white backgrounds and bold headlines. It’s rare to see a website that does something unexpected or that we don’t instinctively know how to use.
Daljit Singh, Chief Design Officer at ANNA Money and founder of digital agency Digit, believes brands have become reluctant to experiment with websites and apps for fear of compromising on ease of use or accessibility – resulting in a wave of identikit online experiences.
“If you have a site where someone just wants to book a flight or a train or make a purchase then user experience and ease of use are paramount, and experience is very secondary, but if you’re playing a game or listening to music or doing something which is more in line with entertainment, then experience becomes incredibly important – and what seems to have happened is that everyone has conformed to the former [approach] rather than the latter … so you very rarely see things that stick out,” adds Singh. “If you cover up the logo on lots of websites, they tend to look very same-y – it’s all become a bit flat – and user experience and accessibility seems to have kind of hijacked creativity and experience.”
Helen Fuchs, Design Director at ustwo, admits that responsive web design has created a more unified graphic language online – and this presents a challenge for brands who want to create an unusual or distinctive experience.
“Over the years we’ve been moving towards a standardisation of digital design patterns. Responsive web design has led to the proliferation of similar layouts, Google’s Material Design and iOS have their own proprietary patterns and the rise of design systems allow brands to express themselves in a coherent and uniform way across different touch points. Within these boundaries, being different just for the sake of it immediately feels gimmicky,” she explains.
So how can brands inject a little personality into websites and apps? And make sure they are creating an experience that feels distinct from their competitors’?
Fuchs believes that brands have to find subtle ways of expressing their personality: