Explaining Jakob’s Law and its role in UX
What is Jakob’s Law
Key Concepts: Mental models, user personas
What is Jakob’s Law?
It’s the principle that users tend to prefer sites that work the same way as all the other sites they already know. This is familiarity. Familiarity with websites or products is the result of mental models that the users have created based on their past experiences.
“Jakob’s law (also known as “Jakob’s law of the internet user experience”) was put forth in 2000 by usability expert Jakob Nielsen, who described the tendency for users to develop an expectation of design conventions based on their cumulative experience from other websites.1 This observation, which Nielsen describes as a law of human nature, encourages designers to follow common design conven- tions, enabling users to focus more on the site’s content, message, or product. In contrast, uncommon conventions can lead to people becoming frustrated, con- fused, and more likely to abandon their tasks and leave because the interface does not match up with their understanding of how things should work.”
Key Concepts: Mental models, User personas.
What is a mental model?
A digital system such as a website or a physical system, for example, like a checkout line in a retail store, makes us form a model of how that system works when we use that system, and then we apply that model to new situations where we meet a system that is similar.
Photo by Blake Wisz on Unsplash
In other words, we use the knowledge we already have from past experiences when interacting with something new.
The goal of UX is to shrink the gap between our own mental models and those of the users and to achieve this goal we use a variety of methods: user interviews, personas, journey maps, empathy maps, and more.
The point of these various methods is to gain a deeper insight into not only the goals and objectives of our users but also users’ preexisting mental models and how all of these factors apply to the product or experience we are designing.
There have been examples in the past of designs of major companies that went well and designs that went awfully wrong.
In 2018 Snapchat did a redesign that caused outrage among its users. Even media outlets picked this up.
Snapchat was getting rid of the previous designs to make it simpler to use, but the people had already made their mental model.
I found this really cool website where you can see all the designs that some major companies had over the years.
What are User Personas?
When designing, saying the “user” is very generic and it doesn’t give us any information about who this user would be. It’s important to know who the target audience is. Who will be using the app? It’s important to also distinguish the different types of possible users.
Personas are intended to foster empathy and serve as memory aids, as well as to create a common mental model of the traits, needs, motivations, and behaviors of a specific kind of user.
The frame of reference that personas help to define is incredibly valuable for teams: it helps team members move away from self-referential thinking and focus on the needs and goals of the user, which is useful for prioritizing new features.
Any details about the user that are relevant to the feature or product you’re building will be useful.
The information within the details section of a user persona helps to build empathy and align focus on the characteristics that impact what is being designed. Common information here includes a bio to create a deeper narrative around the persona, behavioral qualities that are relevant, and frustrations this particular group might have. Additional details could include things like goals and motivations, or tasks the user might perform while using the product or feature.
The insights section of a user persona helps to frame the attitude of the user. The intention here is to add an additional layer of context that provides further definition of the specific persona and their mindset. This section often includes direct quotes from user research.
Jakob’s law isn’t advocating for sameness in the sense that every product and experience should be identical. Instead, it is a guiding principle that reminds designers that people leverage previous experience to help them in understand- ing new experiences. It is a not-so-subtle suggestion that (when appropriate) designers should consider common conventions that are built around existing mental models to ensure users can immediately be productive instead of first needing to learn how a website or app works. Designing in a way that conforms to expectations allows users to apply their knowledge from previous experiences, and the resulting familiarity ensures they can stay focused on the important stuff — finding the information they need, purchasing a product, etc.
Jakob’s law is to always begin with common patterns and conventions, and only depart from them when it makes sense. If you can make a compelling argument for making something different to improve the core user experience, that’s a good sign that it’s worth exploring. If you go the unconventional route, be sure to test your design with users to ensure they understand how it works.