Google and Yahoo: stealing UI vs. stealing graphic design

Google screwed up and published a web page that was stolen from Yahoo's own design. You can learn all about it on Yahoo employee Jeremy Zawodny's blog. It's not a big deal, and people seem to be missing the bigger tabloid headline that this underscores: That Google is playing follower to Yahoo.

But then Google employee Matt Cutts, in a left-handed compliment, pointed out how Yahoo had stolen the look and feel of Google's sponsored links. Twice. Even Robert Scoble jumped in with some commentary about it.

But stealing good UI is different than stealing good art design.

In the case of the IE7 splash page, the art design was lifted. In the case of the sponsored links, it’s possible that what was being lifted from Google was UI — user interface and how it relates to usability — rather than art design choices. This is fundamentally different for a number of reasons. For one, “originality” isn’t really a positive attribute for UI. UIs don’t strive to be original; UI originality usually is just a byproduct of improved functionality. As new insights are made in UI, they cascade across the industry, with the best UI winning out and becoming more commonplace, while the bad stuff disappears (hopefully).

If Yahoo ran color tests in a usability study (not a focus group, but a usability study) and found that Google's sponsored link designs performed the best, then there's no sense in Yahoo using an inferior UI. This is how UI evolves, not just inside of one company, but across entire industries. Because good UI is about usability, not about originality.

Of course, I don’t know enough about the Sponsored Links thing and what went on behind closed doors to know whether or not Yahoo's design changes were for usability or just to "look like Google". I’m just pointing out the possibility, and how UI is truly a different beast than art design.

As for Google's IE7 ripoff: We shouldn't blame Google, we should blame a designer who works at Google. People make mistakes like this all the time. This all kind of reminds me of the Nazi Meat Roundup (And no, I’m not trying to invoke Godwin’s law).

Feedback - 3 responses

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Humuhumu wrote:   
I see plenty of point, myself.

For one, I read Hanford's blog, and I don't read Matt's, so this would have been off my radar, and I would have missed an interesting debate.

Another point: even if I did read Matt's blog, I'd probably miss the comments, or just skim them, and again -- would miss this interesting point of discussion.

Thirdly (and most importantly), Hanford's blog is about UI design, not about Google & Yahoo's playground squabbles. I care more about the interesting points about the evolution of UI design than I do about who's mad at who this week. Your implication that the two posts are essentially the same has got me scratching my head. The post on Matt's blog is merely a convenient example of Hanford's base assertion, and Matt's post makes no mention of this concept whatsoever. This point -- about the difference between learning from others' good UI design and just stealing design -- is something worth some consideration, and is not at all the heart of the discussion over there.
Hanford wrote:   
A little point is better than no point at all. But it seems like it was a big enough point to warrant a comment from you about it.
David law wrote:   
I see little point in writing a new post on this, as well as leaving the same point in Matt’s comments AND updating the original post on your blog with the same point.

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