Over at Robert Scoble’s place, there’s a fairly standard and heated flame war between Robert, who claims that Apple has copied the Windows Media Center for its forthcoming iTV, and various Mac aficionados who point to Microsoft as copying Apple for lots of and lots of stuff. It has, of course, descended into the usual trolling, baiting and vitriol.
What the whole “who’s copying who” shows is a lot of ignorance about the way that design works and progresses. One of the points about design is that, with rare exceptions, it proceeds in increments rather than massive leaps. Designers look at what products are around, and what works and doesn’t, and attempt to improve on them. Good designers improve, bad designers just add features.
But there’s more to this than meets the eye. Design, and particularly usable product design, depends on utilising an underlying “design language” that the user can understand and so get to grips with quickly. This language can come from other products in the same category, or from other product categories. For example, many web pages put their search box at top right, not because it’s the best place for the design of the page, but because it’s the place that people have come to expect to find the search box.
Think about the number of tools that you use in a day. A computer, a television set, a mug, a cooker, a microwave, a magazine, a web page… all are tools to achieve particular ends. And all of them share design features with others of their kind (and often across categories) because having to learn a new “design language” every time you used a different tool would make things much, much slower.
Given this, it’s no surprise that products within the same category – in this case, media players – will use similar controls to achieve similar ends.