Inspiration vs Imitation

I recently started work on my next new app. This process always carries with it a sense of unease as I define the functionality and aesthetic of the app. I try to always be careful about how the things that I create compare to other apps in the store. I want to avoid wherever possible coming across as a copycat.

This is a tricky line to walk since once seeing a particular UI/UX innovation it is hard to avoid having it cloud your thinking and become the obvious choice for how to approach a particular problem. That is also the fear I have. If I didn’t originate a particular feature then I likely also don’t know all that went into its creation. Looking only from the outside I likely don’t know all the tradeoffs that come along with it.

I have come up with the following 3 guidelines that I try to apply to all my own work. They fit well with my goals and thoughts about where the line sits between imitation and inspiration.

#1 Never copy the visual identity of another app

I consider the visual identity of another application essentially copyrighted by its author. It is poor form to intentionally try and create something that could easily be confused with another app in the store. This applies both to things like its icon as well as the typography, colors and visual structure of the app.

This is also just good business since creating an identifiable brand for your app helps establish it and make it recognizable.

Copying the visual identity of another app is also just lazy. I reject the notion that certain types of apps naturally look alike. Part of the fun in creating something is coming up with its own unique look. Even within design families (simple vs rich, flat vs textured, …) you can easily find ways to differentiate your app, and you should.

#2 Don’t copy features from competitors

Generally speaking it is a good idea to avoid getting into a pattern of copying the innovations and enhancements of your competitors. You aren’t in an arms race with them fighting to see who can pack-in the most features. You should be seeking to find ways to differentiate and define the feel of your own applications. It is also just a cheap move to copy what your competitors are doing. Every time it has happened to me I’ve felt awful, I’d never want to do that to another developer.

The exceptions I make to this are when I feel like I can dramatically and materially evolve and expand upon the concept in such a way as to make it my own. There is a natural simultaneous invention aspect to working in the same area which can also feed into this. The goal, however, is to make sure that your implementation is truly unique and distinctive.

I also make an exception for a feature or concept after about a year has past since it was initially introduced. After that point it has become just part of the culture of the store and seems fair game.

#3 Give attribution for the ideas you copy from non-competitors

Some of the best innovations when making an app can come from repurposing an idea from another category into your own. For example, when I took the automatic dark mode feature from Instapaper and brought it to Check the Weather it greatly enhanced the utility of my weather app. These apps don’t compete directly so I felt comfortable with borrowing the concept. I did, however, first ask for permission from its creator and then give attribution for its origin in the app. I always want to give credit where credit is due.

I’m sure some would say that my approach is too heavy-handed and stifles innovation in my apps. I have found the opposite to be true. By constraining the ways I can implement something away from simply duplicating the work of others I force myself to get creative and the result is almost always better.

David Smith