Usability considerations, personalization tactics, emerging web standards, and a renewed focus on accessibility are just the beginning...
Something has slowly happened to web design over the last twenty five years to beg the question we commonly hear from users, prospects, and clients: "Why do all websites look the same?"
Answer: They actually don't. But here are a few reasons why you think they might:
Responsive design and its subsequent frameworks have been forcing a standard.
Suddenly the web was available everywhere, from cubicles at work to phones in your hand to tablets on a plane; so when a website needed to render faithfully on multiple devices and at various resolutions, front-end developers needed an easier way to accommodate that. Enter the 12-column grid framework. But with a limited timeline or budget, there's only so much you can do with the layout options that a grid framework can offer, especially if you want a reliable rendering. This doesn't make all websites look the same, however; it just creates a structured framework that favors consistency in layouts.
The company doesn't have a strong visual brand to begin with.
Translating a corporate brand strategy into an exciting digital experience may not be a simple task if a company associates its brand with generic color schemes, Arial font-faces, stock photography, and standard iconography.* Poor branding alone won't make all websites look the same, however; but it may make them look incredibly generic.
*(I both love you and loathe you, FontAwesome).
The site doesn't "know" you. Yet.
Advanced websites use everything they know about you (e.g. your click-path, profile, or location) to alter their default page layouts to deliver a personalized experience that may better appeal to your needs. But personalization needs to start simple enough to present unknown users with various options to start self-identifying. If a website is properly setup to be personalized based on your explicit or implicit behavior, then it may differentiate itself more as it gets to know you better. But this doesn't mean the website looks too much like other websites; it just means you haven't engaged with it enough for it to offer meaningful differentiation yet.
Accessibility encourages consistency. Consistency supports accessibility.
Designers and user experience professionals are finally taking accessibility issues seriously. A layout probably doesn't exist that can't be made accessible with the right amount of effort, so enforcing accessibility is not necessarily hindering creativity. Yet UX designers know that simpler, cleaner layouts are more usable for people with accessibility issues. And all users - those who need accessibility assistance and those that don't - have come to develop expectations about how a site is going to be navigated and consumed. Taking advantage of these expectations is critical for usability, which leads me to my last point.
UX designers are trying to train you.
You might think that all websites look the same because designers have just gotten lazy by cutting corners or falling back on old tricks, but here's our little secret: it's not our #1 goal to make you gasp with ecstasy over how avant-garde our designs are. That's because we know our success will be eventually be measured in improved KPIs and closed engagement loops. We're looking to do whatever it takes to make the user take that next step toward contacting you, clicking "add to cart," or sharing your latest article. If that means we need to lean back on layouts, tactics, and techniques that have been proven successful over the course of a trillion online iterations, then you best believe we're going to milk that for all it's worth.
Why do all websites look the same? Answer: they actually don't.
Of course I'm being a bit of a Pollyanna about all of this. It's certainly not a difficult task to find a lot of websites out there that look strikingly similar to each other for various reasons (re-use of common templates, rock-bottom budgets that foster copycatting, designing solely for the benefit of Google's SEO algorithm, etc.). So maybe my evolving point is that it’s not as useful to answer the question "Why do all websites look the same?" than it would be to examine if that's necessarily a bad thing in all cases.
The real question, and the real answer:
As designers, how do we help our projects stand out from the crowd and yet meet our users' expectations? How do we balance practical differentiation with maximized accessibility and effortless usability? It really depends on your website's purpose, your brand, your needs, and your goals. A good engagement strategy in the hands of an experienced UX team should be able to help you decide how much and where you should differentiate yourselves without harming usability, accessibility, or reliability.
There’s a reason web design has evolved to this point. Think of it like this: all websites look similar in the same way that all cars look similar. They may all have a similar shape and function, but the design is in the details. The cars that really stand out are the ones that focus on the driver’s experience – but they still all require wheels and an engine.
So don’t be embarrassed to rely on standardized layouts and tactics that have been proven successful as long as you’re able to offer enough differentiation to enforce your own brand or stand out from the crowd. A good balance will always be key. At Aware, we're here to help you take advantage of current web standards while differentiating your users' experience, so contact us today to see how we can strike the perfect balance for you.