Jakob’s Law

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Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt: A user seated at a computer, surrounded by ghostly apparitions of various websites, each identifiable by a distinct, minimalistic icon. The user is actively working on a new site, the interface of which mirrors elements from the surrounding apparitions

In the realm of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design, understanding your users' needs and expectations is paramount. One of the guiding principles that help designers in this endeavor is Jakob's Law. Coined by Jakob Nielsen, a prominent figure in the field of usability engineering, Jakob's Law states that users spend most of their time on other sites, and therefore, they prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know1.

Jakob's Law is a simple yet profound insight that underscores the importance of familiarity in user experience. It is closely related to the principle of consistency and standards, one of Nielsen's ten usability heuristics.

Let's examine three examples to see how Jakob's Law plays out in digital software product design.

Examples

E-commerce Websites

Consider the experience of online shopping. Users have grown accustomed to a specific flow – search for the product, view the details, add to cart, and checkout. If an e-commerce site deviates too much from this familiar process, it risks frustrating its users and losing potential sales. Amazon, eBay, and Alibaba, among others, all follow this established pattern, reinforcing the user's expectation for similar sites.

Social Media Platforms

Social media platforms provide another excellent example. The layout of a profile page, the ability to like, share, and comment on posts, the notification system – these are elements common across various platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. When a new social media platform emerges, adhering to these conventions can help reduce the learning curve for new users.

Mobile Applications

In the realm of mobile applications, consider the design of a settings page. The gear icon universally symbolizes settings, and the structure of the settings page – a list of options that can be toggled on or off – is consistent across many applications. When a user sees the gear icon, they instinctively know it leads to the settings, reducing cognitive load.

In summary, Jakob's Law is a guiding principle in the design of digital software products. It reminds designers to consider the broader ecosystem of user experience when designing a new product. While innovation and uniqueness have their place, designers must strike a balance with familiarity and usability to ensure a positive user experience. By understanding and applying Jakob's Law, designers can create products that are intuitive, easy to use, and ultimately successful.

Origins

Jakob’s Law was coined by Jakob Nielsen, a User Advocate and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group which he co-founded with Dr. Donald A. Norman (former VP of research at Apple Computer). Dr. Nielsen established the ‘discount usability engineering’ movement for fast and cheap improvements of user interfaces and has invented several usability methods, including heuristic evaluation.

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