Jakob’s Law of user experience: Don’t make users think

Jakob’s Law of user experience: Don’t make users think

Updated 6 December 2022

Humans are complex creatures. Our nature is curious and explorative, yet we find great comfort in familiar experiences.

We like to anticipate our future experiences based on our past experiences, which is why consistency is one of the most important principles of usability design.

Like all languages, a common design language creates consistency and collective understanding. Unlike other design languages that have been around forever, the rise of technology has created the need for a common web design language that has been evolving since 1984. Since then, the web has grown rapidly to become so ingrained in our way of life.

Key takeaways: 

  • Users will transfer their expectations from one familiar product to another.

  • We can create a superior user experience by leveraging existing mental models, affording users to focus on their tasks rather than on learning new models.

  • When designing, minimise friction and empower users though familiarity.

What is Jakob’s Law?

Jakob’s Law is a law that developed by nature. It's about adhering to a language that follows the web patterns and conventions that people are familiar with. It was introduced by Jakob Nielsen, a human-computer interaction researcher who is also known as the "king of usability". After his research attracted media attention, he co-founded the famous usability consulting company Nielsen Norman Group with fellow usability expert Donald Norman.

Jakob’s Law of the internet user experience states that users spend most of their time on other websites than your website. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know. Design for patterns for which users are accustomed.

Based on past experiences, users will transfer expectations from one familiar thing to another. If you try something new and unconventional on your website, it can leave your customers confused and lost. By leveraging existing mental models, we can create experiences for the user that allows them to focus on their goal, rather than learning new models. Minimise conflict by applying a common design language that users are familiar with.

What are mental models?

We expect the environment and its elements to function in a certain way. This way of thinking and believing there is a common ground on how things are supposed to work is called a mental model. Anything that aligns with our mental model makes us feel safe and comfortable.

Mental models are just like the law of nature. If you violate them, your audience might not forgive you, which is why utilising a common design language is so important.

What is a common design language?

A common design language means to design for the patterns and conventions to which users are already accustomed to. See how we bring these common languages in into scalable design systems with our guide to creating design systems.

These patterns and conventions don’t just exist online, they exist everywhere. To put this into perspective, let’s look at a real-world Jakob's Law example:

Everyone knows how traffic lights work, right? Red light means stop. Green light means go. But what if one city decides to flip the script? Now red light means go, green light means stop. You can image that this would cause lots of confusion and frustration – and in this case – danger.

Another example, over 1 million Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler vehicles were recalled in 2016 when they deviated from a common design language. When GM changed how the shifting mechanism worked on certain vehicles, the new design was “not intuitive and provided poor tactile and visual feedback resulting in a clear safety issue that led to hundreds of crashes”.

When it comes to applying Jakob’s Law to websites and apps, there’s no simple list of dos and don’ts. How to best apply Jakob’s Law will vary based on your specific business, industry and audience needs.

Jakob’s Law example in action – how it works online

Making use of familiar patterns and conventions, e-commerce sites and apps can effectively keep customers focused on the important stuff — finding and purchasing products. By conforming to users’ expectations about the process, their experience will be more enjoyable.

When shopping online, users expect the following:

  • Logo is placed on the left ("I know I’m at the right store.")

  • Search bar is in the middle ("The easiest way to find what I’m looking for.")

  • Account login sits to the right ("This can expedite the checkout process.")

  • Shopping cart is on the right ("The quickest way to checkout.")

And as the shop gets smaller or more bespoke, users no longer need a cart… just a bag. Otherwise, the same expectations apply.

What happens if a website or app violates Jakob’s Law?

Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations or actions mean the same thing as elsewhere. Users don’t need to be on your website or app and at any moment they are just a click away from your competitors. When it comes to the web, users are quick to make judgments and they’re ruthless about their opinions. Remember the re-design of Facebook or the Snapchat logo?

Changes in user expectations can be represented by the following six major customer experience themes:

  • Convenience

  • Speed

  • Assurance

  • Accuracy

  • Options

  • Experience

Deviating from the common design language can impact one or more of the above. Too much deviation (when not implemented correctly) can make your site harder to use, often alienating users and damaging their interaction with your brand. Sometimes ending the relationship altogether.

Applying Jakob’s Law to your website or app

It all starts with research. Competitor research gives insight into the patterns and conventions that are being used in your industry. User research gives insight into the mental models and behaviour patterns of your customers.

When applying Jakob’s Law, the following aspects of design needs careful consideration:

  • Terminology and labelling: using words and descriptions that your audience (not necessarily you) is familiar with.

  • Interaction design and workflow: create visual cues so your audience knows how to immediately use and quickly understand the choices available to them.

  • Information architecture and navigation: build a content structure that can be quickly processed and easily navigated by your audience.

Lastly, don’t forget to focus on the problems of your customers,– not your problems, preferences or assumptions.

Beyond providing the world with hilarious content, YouTube made a wise move. Without changing much, they asked their users to opt-in or opt-out of new designs. In addition, they frequently ask users for feedback to improve new designs.

Following Jakob’s Law when designing your website or app doesn’t mean it will look and feel like every other site online. A digital expert or agency has the skills and expertise to deliver great work that’s unique to your business and on-brand while still adhering to Jakob’s Law of user experience.

Let us know if you want to level up or implement Jakob's Law principles of design in your business.

Written by

Linda Bailey

UX Director

Diverting from a career in Architecture, Linda uses the left and right side of her brain equally. She's been with Honest Fox from the beginning and is involved in all facets of the business. She's empathetic and kind and loves punk music.