A Sea of Sameness


Inspired by this tweet, and the rabbit hole of conversations surrounding it, I was motivated to share some thoughts on the similar look and feel of B2B startups.


As Brianne mentions, many companies are starting to invest in their brands. Having a story that resonates and a look and feel to go with it can be helpful to existing and prospective customers – using the tools and services every day, but also on-boarding new team members into their workflow. There is a fine balance of “look and feel” since the power users probably no longer care about the front of the house – they are paying customers who are trying to gain value from the tool. However, the majority of people that exist are probably *not* users of the product. Product Managers have to serve many audiences; new users, prospective customers, power users, switchers, tech luddites, engineers, and yes even investors. 

Looking at a few of the services I use I am met with the same sea of sameness on homepage design – just checkout Asana

Now look at Airtable

I am a paying customer for both services so the majority of my time is spent logged in.  This doesn’t affect me at all, but it does beg the question; why do so many of these b2b sites look the same from the front of the house?

Building out a consumer facing part of a B2B site can be resource intensive. As someone that has tried to pry away design and development resources from the main objective, I understand the balance of resources against milestones and features that can make a difference. 

This brings me to a main point that many of these companies are potentially outsourcing what they are building and designing with other firms. This means that they run a RFP (request for proposal) process to vet the potential partner. They ask around “who is the best firm to work with”. They have brainstorming sessions about “who has a great b2b website that we love but also has lots of customers”. They look at portfolio pages of VC companies and look for like minded people and a customer base they strive for. Finally, they have to balance the ever changing design/layout/specific functionality with the need to have a site live unchanged for as long as possible.  This results in a conclusion around cartoonesque design that can generally tell a story about how a system works – but allows the design and dev teams to ship significant upgrades and changes to flows without affecting the marketing team. 

The need to abstract away the specifics of the app are critical – especially during the early product market fit search phase.

Having a small team means have fewer resources.  Having fewer resources means less changing to marketing sites. Less changes mean abstracting pixel perfect screen shots and videos of an app or its functionality – and you are left with cartoons, rough drawings, or general visuals that show the efficiency promised. CEOs have a million fires to put out, need to be able to make decisions, and choosing something that looks and feels like a successful company you aspire to be can be easier than going rogue.

This is all a very long way of saying I understand and support what startups are doing.  The sea of sameness will continue until it doesn’t. Outsourced design firms are handsomely rewarded for delivering what works and what fits the profile they are after. Until a new brand or service breaks the mold, we will continue to see this pattern continue.

Once this change happens we will have a short window where the next great enterprise company looks and feels different – gaining market share and funding faster than the rest.  The downside is that soon after, everyone else will start to look the same and the pattern will happen again. 

If you made it this far, think about zigging while others zag and hopefully you can be at the front of the pack for how you bring your product to market.  Aim to be the design that everyone else references – otherwise you are just afloat in the sea of sameness. 

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