When Gentry Underwood first launched Mailbox, the popular email app that Dropbox reportedly acquired for $100 million, critics lauded the service's smart interaction designs, such as its intuitive swiping gestures that enabled users to sift quickly through mountains of messages. But when Apple unveiled iOS 7 earlier this summer, many immediately noticed the same gestures now came standard in Apple's native email client. Suddenly, Mailbox's central competitive advantage—its clever interaction design—was no longer so unique.
To Underwood, however, imitation is inevitable. "Good design isn't particularly defensible," he says. "If you create a better, simpler way of doing something, it's generally much easier to replicate it than it is to come up with the idea in the first place. This is something Apple both takes advantage of and is also victim to."
It's a challenge all must face, from startups to corporate giants looking to garner rave reviews and make a splash in the market. But as hardware becomes an increasingly smaller part of the equation, software is likely to play a larger role in gaining consumer favor. Smartphones and tablets are forever becoming tinier and thinner, and with wearables like Samsung's Galaxy Gear, Apple's rumored iWatch, and Google Glass, screen real estate is fast diminishing. In this landscape, interaction design is becoming more important to defining product—arguably more so than industrial design. What happens to competition when those innovative interaction designs can't necessarily be owned?
It's a question Silicon Valley has long grappled with, going back to the battle between Microsoft and Apple over GUI. (Steve Jobs famously loved to cite the Pablo Picasso quote, "Good artists copy; great artists steal.") But the issue has become more contentious in the interaction design space, with Apple waging patent wars with Google partners like Samsung over its once-novel interaction designs: inertial scrolling, rubber banding, tap-to-zoom and pinch-to-zoom gestures.
Many independent developers are now dealing with their own ownership issues in this area. Designer Loren Brichter, for example, created the "pull-to-refresh" gesture, which helped popularize his Twitter client Tweetie years ago. But the interaction soon become commonplace in the mobile world, prevalent in news services and social media apps. He was eventually granted a patent for the feature, but not before the ephemeral magic that once set his app apart had dissipated. (He acquired the patent, which Twitter now owns, for defensive purposes only.)
To Brichter, the fact that so many were copying his design was flattering. "I don't think you can keep any good ideas to yourself, and I don't necessarily think you want to—a good gesture interaction isn't a thing that you can stake claim to," he says. "If people start to ape it, I don't think that's a bad thing for anybody."
Jeremy Le Van, lead designer of the sleek Sunrise calendar app, has had to deal first hand with the fleeting attention an inspired interaction design can bring. "That's where people get addicted to your app—the way it interacts—those little things that made you be like, 'I wanna go back to it [for more],'" he says. "[But] all the things we built in version one are now a given in version two." In Sunrise's case, a big-name competitor took notice: Apple unabashedly copied many of the app's unique design elements for its native iOS 7 calendar. In spite of this, Le Van believes it can be "rewarding" to see a competitor replicate your experience. "You don't really own the UI," he says. "As soon as someone copies something from your app, it just means you've done a good job. Given the size of the screen, there's only so much you can do."
In other words, there are benefits to others copying your interaction designs. For one, when they become universal, the overall user experience improves across apps and platforms. We avoid the usability hell of having a fragmented set of gestures that require different interactions to trigger the same action. Imagine if Brichter's "pull-to-refresh" gesture was only accessible for Twitter use, and in order to refresh feeds on the New York Times or Snapchat, we had to learn unique interactions for each: side swipes, edge gestures, or multi-finger taps. It would be terrible.
While interaction design can initially set an app apart, if it's truly intuitive, expect it to be mimicked elsewhere. And as devices become smaller and more dependent on software, the time it will take for others to rip off your designs is likely to shorten.
For developers, that means more competition—not to mention more motivation to keep coming up with the next best thing. Underwood, for instance, said his Mailbox service only launched with two "killer features," but that the company has plans to introduce three to four more—designs that will likely be copied by Apple or others.
"We expect that as we innovate, we're going to have a lot of people replicating the parts that work, and generally speaking, that's going to be good for the world—making tools faster and better and more delightful," Underwood says. "The thing that we need to keep doing here is to continue to push our own innovations and stay in front."
Thus, he declines to give insight into what his team is working on.
"[Because of] how quickly some of these innovations can be copied, we definitely won't be talking about them until they're ready to use," he says.