Psychology of design – What is Jakob's Law?
This series explores the Laws of UX and investigates what they are and how they're applied today. Are they guidelines that stand the test of time? Or rules that are made to be broken?
WHO IS JAkOB?
Jakob’s law was originally created by Jakob Nielsen. He was the co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group alongside Dr Donald A. Norman (former VP of research at Apple Computer). The NNGroup is famous for its research and data-based case studies on user behavior. They discovered that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know and use.
WHERE can JAkOB be SEEN?
Some of the most successful digital interfaces standardize their design and make sure they work very similarly to the most popular products out there.
Meaning the most commonly used elements on the page should exist in the same location as other widely used digital interfaces. This likely also applies to performance speed and trust boosters like payment security and privacy protection as well. A majority of websites have the company logo in the top left corner and if you click it, it will take you to the homepage. If you want to discover other areas of the site, you'll look to the navigation at the top or expect it to be repeated in the footer. Looking for your login access? That will likely be found on the top right side. These are some of the most common UX patterns, and users expect it to work the same way on your website as it does on Amazon, Youtube and Facebook.
Why is this the case?
According to Jon Yablonski (author of the site Laws of UX) – By leveraging existing mental models, we can create superior user experiences in which the users can focus on their tasks rather than on learning new models. This is why user research is so important like identifying personas and mapping their Jobs-To-Be-Done. It helps product teams visualize and surface relevant content on each interface so we can allow users to find what they need with minimal barriers.
Reinventing digital products
Is Jakob's Law applied to new tech products like mobile apps, music players, gaming devices and voice interaction design? And who sets the status quo? Even though mobile apps have different patterns than website usage, they still use consistent usability patterns like the hamburger menu for navigation, bottom sheets for keyboards and data entry, sliding interaction to help users recognize that they're previous screen is not lost but hiding behind another. Many of these patterns were established using eye-tracking studies including Jakob's discovery of the F-pattern for text heavy interfaces like news websites. Others include the Z-pattern, which are best for content that wants to tell a story.
As far as who decided that these patterns were the status quo – In my opinion, it's a combination of who got to the market first and the early adopters who used the product when it first came out. This is why product teams scrabble to go-to-market and release as fast as possible. In the early days, they wanted to be the ones who change the game. Nowadays, it feels like companies push their go-to market strategy so they can be the ones who filled the market gap before another company, giving users that much needed thing that's been missing in their lives. Much like what Material Design and Flash did for design, the new tech products of today are still using pattern recognition but adapting it to the new user's expectations.
And yeah, I said Flash – As in splash pages with moving objects, micro-animations and visually stunning hover effects. The performance on these sites were horrible and thus users hated waiting for them to load. However, with better internet bandwidth, users are delighted to see and explore interfaces with visual surprises so in a way it paved a path for teams to improve interaction design.
is the law becoming irrelevant?
How much has social media changed the way products are designed? Some digital products have deviated from the laws and rely on users to click everything in order to see feedback. Will the laws change or are we just getting introduced to new UX patterns?
In his article about Tik-Tok and Instagram, Michal Malewicz raises an interesting point on mobile apps that are taking up 90% of users' time and attention. If users are only occupying a single source for news, entertainment and socializing and that source is not using Jakob's Law, does this mean the law is irrelevant? I'm going to say no – And here's why... I think that even though these apps changed the way video content is interacted with on mobile, I noticed that similar digital products are adopting key elements on their own interfaces.
Facebook, now Meta, bought Instagram and WhatsApp and started using the Stories feature from Instagram on all three apps, four if you include Messenger. Tik-Tok's interface uses similar UI and UX patterns from Twitter and other feed-based interfaces. Pinterest, a product that users also spend hours on, has also adopted a video-like format for its sponsored advertising. Tinder broke the mold by getting us all to swipe right and start seeing human beings as fast food menu items. Other dating apps have adopted that interaction pattern as well. If you read through the timeline of articles on Jakob's Law, you can see that it's changed from being a blanket covering all user behavior to one that's split into different categories of device and product model.
Do I think the law is irrelevant? No, it's very much alive in these apps but I do think social media addiction is becoming a new pattern – one that's leveraging our worst habits to get us to stay on a single source for hours at a time. Similar to how a casino gets people to pull slots until the wee hours of the morning, we'll likely see elements like auto-play on audio / video and never-ending content loops in similar products. Since it's the users who determine UX patterns, these addictive features won't stop until the user decides to "swipe left" on that slot machine experience.