UX Laws

Common mistakes in interpreting UX Laws: misunderstood UX Rules

The Laws of UX is an extremely valuable tool that provides a solid base of recommendations for improving user experience. Thanks to them, designers do not have to constantly reinvent the wheel, and developers do not have to get out and come up with more twisted components and styles.

Nevertheless, the laws of UX are usually developed by scientists and psychologists, people who are more than happy with the exceptions and even assumptions of academic language. But, by the time these laws come into contact with real work, the language inevitably becomes oversimplified. What stood behind the idea, all the wisdom and the whole system of interconnections simply dissolve into nothingness. It’s no wonder that designers in the trenches often misunderstand and misinterpret these laws in real work due to their artificial academic origin.

Let’s take a look at some of the most famous and often cited laws of UX that too many designers misunderstand.

Misunderstood Miller's Law

Probably never in the history of Homo sapiens has a single scientific statement encountered so many erroneous interpretations as Miller’s law.

Miller’s Law states that the average person can only hold seven plus or minus two (i.e. 5–9) items in working memory. This was often used to limit user interface navigation to no more than five items.

However, Miller’s law does not apply to displayed elements. While it is true that too many options can lead to a “freeze of choice,” a person is still able to consider and comprehend more than nine different elements without problem

Even if people can only remember 7±2 items at a time, this does not apply to the number of objects displayed on the screen. Show all 11 menu items if you have that many.

Explanation of Jacob's Law

Named after user experience researcher Jakob Nielsen, Jakob’s Law states that users spend most of their time on other sites and as a result prefer web resources that perform just like the ones they already know.

Jacob’s Law is often used to limit experimentation and encourage the adoption of common design patterns in the name of usability. On the one hand, this is a significant plus for the designer and web developer – they can reuse previously created elements and ready-made libraries. Also, this fact can be beneficial for the client, as template-based solutions are made faster and cheaper.

However, the word “prefer” in the context of users is greatly exaggerated. While it is true that it is easier for a user to understand a familiar design pattern, they do not necessarily prefer a familiar experience.

It has been widely proven that new experiences improve our mood and memory. If your goal is a memorable site that leaves users with a positive impression, then introducing a novelty is the right decision.

Summing up according to the law of Jacob’s law. Yes, people like familiar and similar interfaces. But novelty contributes to positive emotions and good memory.

Interpreting the effect of aesthetics in usability

The historical figure, publicist Edmund Burke once said: “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” This belief is key to the aesthetic usability effect, which states that an aesthetically pleasing design will be perceived by users as more user-friendly.

Designers often use this as an excuse or justification, for example for the gray text on a gray background, smooth animation, and minimal navigation. At the same time, they forget about readability, page load timeout, and the speed of the first and subsequent user interactions with the site.

The critical point to understanding this effect is that yes, users expect a design to be user-friendly, but that doesn’t mean that it is or that they will find it to be. Expectations can quickly be dashed, and disappointment often exacerbates negative experiences.

Yes, people find it prettier and more comfortable. But this does not mean that beauty is enough to make the interface user-friendly. This law cannot justify thin gray text on a gray background and a bunch of “smooth” animations.

Analysis of the goal gradient hypothesis

The Goal Gradient Hypothesis suggests that the closer users are to their goal, the more likely they are to achieve it.

This is an attractive theory, especially in e-commerce, where it is often used to justify simplifying the initial purchase process and setting aside complexity to move users up the funnel. A typical example is to delay paying for an order until the last step.

However, anyone who has studied e-commerce analytics knows that abandoned carts are a colossal problem for online retailers. In North America, and this is the most developed consumer market in the world – abandoned carts reach a level of ~ 75%.

We do not always know what the user’s real goals are, and they may not coincide with ours. Perhaps users see your shopping cart as a bookmarking feature, maybe they changed their mind at the last minute, or they might be horrified by the shipping cost you display at the very end of the shopping journey.

While giving the user an indication of their progress is clearly helpful, artificially inflating their proximity to your preferred business goal can actually hinder conversions.

Yes, the closer we are to the goal, the stronger the desire for it and the higher the probability of achieving it. But designers do not know for sure what goals a person has, and they make the mistake of replacing a person’s goal with a business goal.

Decomposition of Fitts' Law

In the 1950s, Paul Fitts demonstrated that the distance to a target and its size affect the error rate in choosing that target. In other words, it is always harder to press the small button, and correspondingly even more difficult to press the small button further away.

UX designers typically apply this law when considering breakpoints due to the relatively small viewport. However, mobile viewports are generally not large enough for any distance to affect touch accuracy.

Fitts’ Law can be applied to desktop breakpoints since distances on a large monitor can be enough to have an effect. However, most large viewports use the mouse, allowing you to correct the position before touching.

Clickable targets should be large enough to be easily selected and spaced correctly from each other according to the available space. But distance has minimal impact on web design.

Yes, the accuracy of hitting the target is inversely proportional to the distance to the target and squared to its size. But in desktop interfaces, with a mouse, aiming errors are easy and quick to fix. And in mobile interfaces, the distance to the target does not play a role, it is the same all the time.

Deciphering the law of peak and end

The peak and end rule state that users rate an experience based on how they felt at the peak and at the end, rather than the overall average experience.

Designers typically use the peak-to-end rule to focus design resources on the primary goal of each experience (such as adding an item to the cart) and the final experience (such as paying for an item).

However, while the peak-to-end law is perfectly real, it cannot be applied to public interfaces such as websites for example. After all, on the site, it is impossible to accurately determine the starting or ending point of the user.

It’s also easy to think of every interaction on a website as a peak, and it’s even easier to make assumptions about which peak is the most important. Thus, while designing for spades is attractive, it is more important to design for exceptions or so-called bad paths—those places where users may or may not intentionally deviate from the idealized and only intended path.

Yes, the overall impression is based on peak and end. But in the case of sites and other open interfaces, it is impossible to predict the peak and end of the route of a particular user.

Occam's Razor Explained

No set of UX laws would be complete without Occam’s Razor; unfortunately, this is another law that is commonly abused.

Occam’s Razor states that given any choice, the option with the fewest guesses/assumptions (not necessarily the simplest, as it is often misquoted) is the most correct one.

In the industry where there are many options for testing, measuring, and analyzing our user interfaces, it is not necessary to make assumptions. Even when there is no need for extensive UX testing, the decision can be made based on the findings of other designers.

Occam’s Razor is a classic design trap. The key to avoiding it is to recognize that it’s not your assumptions that matter, but the users’ assumptions. So Occam’s Razor is applied to the user experience, not the design process.

This philosophical principle says that if other things are equal, you should choose what is based on fewer assumptions. And the assumptions are not personally yours or your designer’s which is very important, but end-user ones. The choice should not fall on the simplest or most obvious solution, as often misinterpreted.

The main idea of the article

The laws of UX are useful as a guideline for design in general. When it’s at a starting point of a product and there are many factors not yet determined. But in order for the recommendations from the laws to work effectively, you need to deeply understand the context. Under specific conditions, certain statements work, while in others the same theses are not applicable. This is one of the main reasons for conducting user research to verify hypotheses and develop a working flow for a specific product, under certain conditions, for the right audience.

Summing up the message of the article – rules are made to be broken, stop, wait a sec… Nothing is true, everything is permitted, no, it’s not right again… I’ll just say from myself: immerse yourself with the context of the product, its business goals, and most importantly – the real needs of end-users, and not only useful but unified and generalized laws of user experience.

Written By
Rasim Nadzhafov
Product/Project Manager, Entrepreneur

Only through self-education, flexibility, dynamism, and comprehension of new things you can achieve permanent success.

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