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$230 Million Still Can't Buy A Startup Original Design?

Do these two designs look the same to you? Because they sure do to us.

[Images: via HelloSign/Animation: Daniel Salo]

You’ve heard it before. Two startups, with vastly different amounts of funding, each do ostensibly the same thing. In the left corner, you have HelloSign, with $3.5 million in funding, which allows you to sign documents electronically. In the right corner, you have DocuSign, with $230 million in funding, which also allows you to sign documents electronically.

But in an open letter this week, HelloSign CEO Joseph Walla accused his competitor of copying HelloSign’s desktop welcome page. And the visual argument he builds is damning, showing side-by-sides of the two companies' interfaces, as well as before-and-afters of DocuSign’s interface.

Here's HelloSign's interface from last year:


HelloSign, ca. April 2013

And here's DocuSign's new site:


DocuSign, ca. November 2014

You’ll see that it’s not just a case of very similar color, typography, or layout; DocuSign appears to have duplicated HelloSign’s entire approach, turning a generic welcome screen into a very specific, three-part, person-centric experience. As Walla explains:

The page they copied isn’t just any page. This is the first page you see when you log into HelloSign or DocuSign. This page is core to the product. Your experience with the product starts here. eSignatures are complicated. Our product involves a lot of complex workflows. Figuring out how to simplify this process was a significant challenge. Simplicity isn’t simple. But we broke through. And then DocuSign copied us.

When Co.Design reached out to DocuSign regarding Walla’s claim, a spokesperson from the company clarified, "Design elements that have recently been questioned are part of current, limited testing with a segment of our web users, and are inspired by the design of our mobile app update from early 2013."

Indeed, the DocuSign rollout appears to be limited to a small group. When we attempted to check DocuSign’s new design ourselves, we didn’t see the potentially HelloSign-inspired design at all.

As for DocuSign pointing back to its mobile app from 2013 as its source of inspiration, there are still two potential holes in this defense. First, we haven’t confirmed what that design was (and nothing from our searches matches). Secondly, HelloSign debuted its login screen in April of 2013, meaning DocuSign need to have published its design before that date to absolve the claim. We’ve requested further clarification from DocuSign but have yet to hear back.

Of course, good design often becomes convention across products and mediums. You will find design elements in the workflows across HelloSign and DocuSign that neither company invented. If someone had never borrowed or thieved an idea along the way, we wouldn't have grounding standards in how we use the web today. Much like, we might not even know the young startup HelloSign was an e-signature business, if it hadn't copied the status quo DocuSign's "blankSign" branding first.

Read more here.

[h/t: Farhad Manjoo]

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