December 2021

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

by Linda Bailey

Humans are complex creatures. Our nature is curious and explorative, yet we find great comfort in familiar experiences. Based on our past experiences, we like to anticipate our future 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, which evolves over time. 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.

This brings us to Jakob’s Law which is about adhering to a language that follows the web patterns and conventions, that people are familiar with.

But first, who’s Jakob?

Jakob Nielsen holds a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction and after his research attracted media attention, he co-founded the famous usability consulting company Nielsen Norman Group with fellow usability expert Donald Norman.

Fun fact: There’s also another law named after Jakob: Nielsen's Law of Internet Bandwidth

but for now, onto Jakob’s law.

What is Jakob’s Law?

Jakob’s Law of the Web User Experience states that users spend most of their time on other sites. 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. (1)

Watch this 2-minute Video discussing Jakob's Law

Key takeaways from Jakob’s Law

  • Based on past experiences, users will transfer expectations from one familiar thing to another.

  • By leveraging existing mental models (you’ll learn about this in a second) 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 (you’ll learn about this in 3 seconds) 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 in our head about how things work is our 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 consumer 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 accustomed.

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

Traffic lights. Red = stop, green = go.

… but what if one city or state decides to flips the script? Red = go, green = stop.

My guess: 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”. (2)

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.

Let’s have a look at an online example.

Jakob’s Law in action

By 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 is quicker and more enjoyable.

When shopping online, users' expect

  • Logo to left (so I know I’m at the right store)

  • Search bar in the middle (the quickest and easiest way to find what I’m looking for)

  • Account login to the right (this can expedite the checkout process)

  • Shopping cart to the right (the quickest way to checkout)

1 catch
2 walmart
3 ebay
4 amazon
5 kogan
6 asos
7 etsy
8 target
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 Snapchat logo?

dc98b324-50ec-4f76-8d77-b53ce26a9042d8db1c5f-45b1-4587-b0fc-9a911dbc7bf8 +

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 and ultimately impacting your bottom line.

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 behavior patterns of your customers.

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

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

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

  • Information architecture and navigation - create 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.

Want to level up or implement Jakob's Law principles in your business? We're here to help, drop us a line!

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Linda Bailey

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.

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