Illustration of boxes on a conveyor belt for an article on why websites frequently look the same

Website template-itis: Friend to savvy marketers, or roadblock to innovation?

Browsing the web has become like walking or breathing. We do not think about it until we stumble upon a frustrating experience, but that does not happen too often anymore. Mostly, it is like sailing a sea of beautiful images, bold promises, and clear statements. Then, something occurs to us as we are on a website: Have I been here before? It certainly cannot be, but why do I have this déja-vu feeling?

Organizations deciding to redo their web presence get the same realization. They are clicking through websites of their local competitors and global industry leaders. The older websites look dated. The bunch who had gone through the exercise recently look surprisingly similar, as though they were all pulled together from the same template. Are we all sick with template-itis?

A typical website experience in 2019 goes like this. A beautiful fullscreen image with a big, sans-serif impact sentence on top. Three “unique selling points” with icons. A blurb or two with accompanying images. Client testimonials. A call-to-action and a newsletter signup form. For startups, some additional rules apply. They add illustrations of people and things connected to their product story. Preferably mint green, purple and pink. Raise your hand if you’ve seen one of those. For the 17th time this week.

GIF showing all websites to be the same

Reasons for this:

  • Templates are easy and simple to use: Website builders use ready-made templates due to the hustle-free, cheap and quick way to get a website online with close to no technical knowledge. The good templates get recognized and endorsed and used tens of thousands of times. The theme developers see which ones sell, then follow the trend. We’re not only talking WordPress here. Want to do a slick e-commerce store? Use Shopify. Are you a fashion designer? Squarespace is a no-brainer then! Want to look like the next hot thing straight out of the Silicon Valley? Hell, we even have a builder for you!
  • The growth in user experience: Web design and usability are two of the most studied fields in the last decade as good user experience (UX) is what drives conversions, earns millions of dollars and often contributes to how successful organizations are in their “off-screen” life. There are clear guidelines available on what kind of page structure, buttons, and even words will do the job. People go and implement those guidelines – so no wonder the result is alike.
  • High expectations: Everyone just loves that blue off-the-shoulder Zara dress. If something looks good and feels good, I won’t settle for less. If my restaurant rival has this slow-mo video on their website, showing a chef lighting a steak up with a blowtorch in front of awed customers, I have to do something similar.

So, is “template-itis” a bad thing? 

A German digital design professor criticized the current state of web, saying creativity is dead. That we’ve become far too obedient to visual conformity, economic viability and assumed expectations. It sparked a very intense discussion and strong counter-arguments (if you want art, go to the gallery – the Internet is for accomplishing tasks, fast.) So – is web art or business? Is standardizing good or bad?

The good news is, we definitely have reached a place where people have figured out what works. We do not have to go through the trial and error. We now know showering users with popup windows will make them leave, but just the right popup at the right time can make them stay. It’s a good time for smaller businesses who have limited time and budget to be able to get something decent out there, foolproof and with nearly no effort. Will it be boring? Most likely yes. Will it do the job? If the value proposition doesn’t lay entirely on your web presence – perhaps it will.

It becomes a problem if instead of using the studied principles as an aid for streamlining our work, we use them as an excuse to be lazy. We should not assume we have to adopt a component just because we see it around. “Five hundred happy clients” stats, “as seen on the New York Times” references – they work for many, but we should not copy and paste them without thinking long and deep about our business and audiences.

I don’t want to be like everyone else! What should I do?

  • Always start with content strategy:Own and cherish your content (or work with someone who will guide you through discovering your messaging and the real needs of the audiences). Make sure each line of text you put out there has substance. Shallow, superficial boilerplate statements adapted to fit into a space just because a template had it there won’t do the job. Developing the right messaging is hard work and often takes months of strategy exercises. Will a client testimonial just take up space for no reason or are you in a market where your audience needs validation from other like-minded sources? This process might not be so exciting (probably less so than presenting a shiny new website design to the board) but that is where it should begin.
  • Design and develop content at the same time:The website creation process should involve teamwork and collaboration at all stages, as opposed to treating different parts of the process as a factory assembly line. That will ensure that this unique voice of your brand will shine through, both visually and message-wise.
  • Invest in original photography and illustration:This will help you to talk to your online visitors as “you”, not as “a $50 template” full of stock photography. Every organization is unique, and technologically there are no limits to expressing that. Colour and design element choice, custom graphics, micro-animations, and interactions – there are a million ways of making that corner of the web yours!
  • Don’t forget about the intangibles:Love your data, your reports, and your analytics, but always add your intuition, emotion, and passion to the mix. Always ask the question “Why am I doing things a certain way?” If you can answer that question about all of the elements in your website and if you still end up looking like everyone else, it might very well be that this is just what needs to happen so your business goals are met.

The very respected “father of UX” Jakob Nielsen laid out his research, hypothesizing that if the improvements continue at the same pace they have done so since 2004, we should reach a perfect web (where 100% of the users find what they were looking for) by 2030. It means the question of what will set your brand apart from the competitors is already becoming the central issue for web planners and digital marketers. We need to get back to prioritizing true brand storytelling and unique visual approaches. But this time it happens on top of well-oiled UX principles of which we are gaining a better and better understanding.

Antra Balode is the digital producer at Banfield Agency.

Looking to embark on a new website experience for your audience? Reach out to Banfield Agency to find out more about how we can help you on your journey!

Illustration by Erin Watson

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