Jakob’s Law is also know as the Jakob’s law of the internet experience. It was put forth by Jakob Nielson a usability expert in the 2000s. He described “the tendency of users to develop an expectations of design conventions based on their cumulative experience from other websites” *(Jakob Nielson, “ End of Web Design” Nielsen Normal Group, July 22, 2000, https://www.nngroups.com/articles/end-of-web-design.)*
The law states that-
Users spend most of their time on other sites, and they prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.
Well, the first thing that came to my mind years ago when I first studied Jakob’s law was, ‘Yeah! This makes total sense. In fact it actually feels quite obvious!!’ Years later… Well it kind off does. We need to first understand – What is user experience? It how a user feels when he comes across or uses a particular product. And if it is something similar, then he would be happy because it was familiar and he didn’t really have to use use a lot of brains. And another point to note here is a basic human nature – the fear of change! So what Jakob Nielson implies is, the amount of mental effort which is saved due to the lower cognitive load as an effect of familiar and similar user experiences, can lead to a higher success rate of the user completing a task or objective.
In his book Laws of UX Jon Yablonski, says – ‘ The easier we make it for people to achieve their goals, the more likely they are to do so successfully’. Which is absolutely true.
One of the common methods of reducing this friction to make it easier is by using common design patterns in strategic areas like page structure, workflows, navigation and placement of expected components. When we practice this, we are making sure, that the users can be faster at performing their task and wouldn’t have to go through the learning curve to figure it out.
But the question is, does easier have to to be similar and familiar? Shouldn’t user experience designers do exactly that. Innovate to make the user experience easier and enjoyable? Why should we follow the same pattern if we can design the same task differently but ensure that it’s easy and an enhanced experience?
For example, the earlier update to iOS 15 had dramatically changed user behavior by placing the search bar on the Safari at the bottom of the screen and received a a lot backlash on media. There were pros and cons to this new feature.
“But many complained that the floating search/address bar was taking up too much space and rendering websites unusable. The bottom search bar placement also hid a lot of useful buttons that were present when it was on the top of the screen. This meant users had to dig in deep if they want to make use of certain functionalities. For example, the bottom address bar required users to tap and hold the address bar if they wanted to reload, share or copy something from the page. Some functions such as bookmarks, share buttons, and refresh page were also hidden from the main screen, but Apple added them back in iOS Beta 3 “
Safari tried to give the users a choice to choose to go for the new look or the old and it seemed it like most of them actually went for the old design. However there were some good sides, to this design.
“…if you get used to it. A simple left or right can help you switch tabs quickly. It also makes sense if you have small hands or want to perform one-handed operations. “
Just to understand this better PiunikaWeb conducted a poll asking which Safari design is better and guess what 55% of people actually liked the new design.
So by not following the pattern, Safari was able to make a task easy with an enhanced experience. Its hard in the beginning and requires getting used to and this is because you need to break the earlier habit and the general workflow that you are used to.
Well, for those who still hate the new design, rest assured, the new iOS 15 update gives you the flexibility and lets you place the search bar anywhere you want.
This is where the physiological concept of Mental Models comes in. This earlier habit and the the general flow that you are used to is called Mental Model. Mental models are the pre conceived behavioral patterns that have been ingrained or established in a human brain due to prior encounter or experience.
It’s simple, For example, in India, we have left lane driving. Which means on any double road where there is to and from traffic, I would drive on the left side. So my brain has registered that this is a pattern and that this is how the law should be. Well, come United States, my brain was bamboozled My mental model took a big hit!! Because in US, we drive on the right side. So what really happened here is my mental model had to break down and accept something else and so it did. It took practice and motivation, but it did.
Generally, good user experience is achieved when the product or service is in alignment to the user’s mental model. The biggest challenge of designers today is to reduce the gap between our own mental models as designers and developers of the product and the users mental model. And this why user research becomes so important. Journey map, task analysis, usability testing all this methodologies help give us more insight into the users mental model.
But there is nothing to say that these mental models are the holy grain and need to be achieved at any cost. Think about for example how it must have been when self checkout first came up. People have been used to only shopping for stuff and then handing over the responsibilities of billing to the cashier. However due to the pre conceived mental model it took some time for the users to accept it and make it a new habit. And today in most super market self checkout is the primary mode of billing for almost 80% of shoppers.
DID YOU KNOW : In the early 1990s, Dr Howard Schneider developed the first retail self-checkout system (called “the service robot”) and by 2003 self-checkouts were prevalent in retail stores across America and by 2024 the market is expected to hit $4billion, with 468,000 units installed globally.
So the phase when the brain is confused and has to go through the load of breaking its mental model to accept a new workflow is called mental model discordance. It can be defined as “ a misalignment of the designs to the user mental model, which affects not only how users perceive the products but also the speed at which they understand them.” One big example of mental model discordance is the 2018 redesign of snapchat. Instead of progressively introducing new features, they launched a major over haul that drastically changed the way app was being used and this resulted it them losing majority of their user base. Even after they tried to get back their users by redesigning the app by providing customized apps to users, it backlashed and caused their revenue to drop significantly.
The important thing to understand here is how are major redesigns shipped. How are you ensuring that you give time to the users to slowly come around accepting the new design. Google does this brilliantly where it allows users to opt into redesigned versions and eventually slowly come around to using it.
So in conclusion, does Jakob’s Law definitely argue that all websites and apps behave similarly? It also suggests that we should be using preexisting patterns and try to stay away from causing mental model discordance.
But if all apps and websites are behaving the same, wouldn’t it all be boring? Well good question! And a valid concern. Jon Yablonski says that in todays setup this consistency has been attributed to a lot of reasons – to speed up development due to preexisting framework, maintenance of product standards, competition and sometimes even lack of creativity. He hypothetically poses a use case when all there are no UX Patterns and all apps and websites behave differently. This would mean that users cannot depend on their mental models. Their ability to be productive in completing tasks would drop heavily as they would have to first learn app or website. And inf act patterns would eventually emerge just for the sake of a necessity. So this is also not shutting doors on creating something radically different.
The important thing to remember is a good strategy needs to be in place outlining why this change is being made and how it is going to impact the users. A lot of usability testing needs to be performed to ensure all bugs and hiccups are removed and the experience even though very different is still easily performable and doesn’t add too much cognitive load. And always begin with patterns and slowly give your users some time to adjust to the change. Don’t overwhelm them. And of course always design for the edge cases and not just the happy path!!!