Imitation is no longer flattery
If you haven’t heard of the Jio-Zoom plagiarism clash, you’re probably living under a rock (which may not be a bad idea given the state of the world right now). The turf war between Jio Meet and Zoom began when the Indian telecom giant ripped off the Chinese company’s design pixel by pixel. What followed was users all over the country bashing Jio for publicly admitting to plagiarism. I guess Zara stealing designs from the runway is too menial for us to be outraged at, but user interface design is where everyone draws the line.
As a designer, I am naturally drawn to hating Jio for taking someone’s hard work and passing it off as their own with no remorse. Responsible netizens, such as I, threw enough shade on Jio to last a lifetime, but when you’re owned by the 4th richest man in the world, it’s all background noise. This got me thinking – when you’re that wealthy, hiring a team of designers that knows how to make a design look original, even though, it’s a direct copy should be the easiest thing to do. Why then, did the company think it was wise to rip off even the smallest details such as hex codes and icon dimensions? There’s more to this than meets the eye and that’s the discussion we should be having.
Besides the integrity argument, Jio haters had nothing more to say about the issue. The supporters, on the other hand, claim that Jio offers features that Zoom doesn’t and that’s why it is better. But let’s be real for a second – how many apps on your phone can you say are TRULY unique? As much as I hate to admit it, user experience plagiarism simply does not matter to the user. In many ways, it might be welcome because it requires lesser cognitive effort on the users’ part. So why do designers slog all day to come up with fresh ideas, when it’s easier to just rip someone off? Simple – some of us have a conscience.
At present, there is little redressal for issues pertaining to UI design plagiarism and surprisingly, this has been hotly debated. There is a surge of “aesthetic” culture with companies like Instagram and Snapchat putting graphic design tools in the hands of every customer. Anyone with a smartphone can make a conventionally good looking graphic and pass it off as their creative work. It is widely known that programs like Sketch provide readymade UI templates that just require the designer to update the text and publish the app for development. Would you classify such designs as original? And is there really a way to identify how much of the UX has been mimicked?
User experience, today, has matured to levels where the process is largely standardized. If you wish to design a customer feedback form, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel – you have a body of past work by other firms that has proven results. Thus, companies rely on visual elements such as colours, icons and layouts to differentiate themselves. And this where Jio faltered. But had they simply changed the colours of the buttons and moved the graphics around a little, would their design magically become original? Would you even KNOW whether it has been copied?
So, before you jump to Zoom’s defense, ask yourself – Do you like it when you’re in a familiar digital environment and know what button to click on? Would you rather use an app that you’ve interacted with before or learn how to use an entirely new solution? If you’re a regular user that fits the average persona, I’m guessing you would pick familiarity over novelty. And that’s what Jio took advantage of. Does that mean every Zoom user in India will move to JioMeet? Not really, but it helps push the latter’s agenda. By creating a familiar environment and offering better features such as 24-hour calls that Zoom did not provide, JioMeet has proven that, in 2020, ethics can go take a hike.
In grey areas like these, I like to believe that the user always emerges the winner. When two designs LOOK quite the same, the competition comes down to better product design and a glitch-free experience. The solution with better features triggers competitors to offer similar elements and at the end of day, the user wins. So while the world fights over what’s ethical and what’s not, I’ll be busy uploading a story on Instagram. Or maybe, Snapchat. Or Facebook. Doesn’t matter – they’re all the same anyway.