As a creative, I often feel the urge to try new things, explore new territory and reimagine how things work. When designing patterns or screens or user flows, it can be tempting to want to ‘push the envelope’. Over the years, I’ve discovered this creative expression is a double edged sword when it comes to good UX/UI in product design.
A few years ago I discovered Jakob’s Law of User Experience. Here is a summary:
Users spend most of their time using software other than yours. This means that users would prefer your software to work the same way as all the other software they already know and use. Create patterns and interactions that users are accustomed to.
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). Jakob Nielsen is a founding father of User Experience (UX) design. His face would be chiseled onto the Mt. Rushmore of product design. Put it this way, when Jakob speaks, we listen.
Knowing when to be unique and different and knowing when the best option is to leverage existing conventions is one of the foundational skills of a good designer. It’s a delicate balance but certainly a key to good design.
Here are some UI patterns and components where leveraging existing models is usually a good idea:
- Login Screen
- Forgot Password
- Create Account + Account Setup
- Calendar Views
- Shopping Cart + Add to Cart
- Payment + Checkout Flows
- Search + Search Results
- Primary Menus + Navigation
But should you? Probably not.
Our goal is to avoid burdening users with additional cognitive load. We should do whatever we can to reduce the learning curve and the amount of mental processing required to use our software.
People like predictability. We often anticipate what an experience will be like, based on our past experiences. Sometimes fresh perceptive on a stale industry or mental model is good and when done well, the result can be delightful.
More often however, as product designers, we should lean into established norms and not require users to think about learning new workflows or having to decipher our creativity.
Imagine if every model of car had a distinct and unique mechanism for steering and accelerating and braking. Imagine, some utilize pedals, some use steering wheels, some use buttons, some use levers, some monitor your head movements, some use spoken commands, etc – it would be an incredible burden each time you sat in the driver’s seat just to get out of the driveway.
By leveraging existing mental models, we can create smoother user experiences in which people can focus on their tasks rather than on learning new models. This instills confidence and a confident user is a happy and productive user.
Concepts I try to remember when designing:
- Don’t be too clever.
- Make it easy for people.
- Don’t overthink the obvious.
- Leverage existing conventions.
- Simplicity is massively underrated.
Choose your creative flourishes with care and show empathy for your users by adhering to Jakob’s Law (except when you shouldn’t 🤪).