Apple’s tagline from 1997 — Think Different — heralded innovation that changed people’s lives. Their push for new and better and more efficient is appealing to artists, designers, and UX professionals. As a UX designer, you might ask: should your newly-designed website or app look and feel like everyone else’s or should you innovate and create something new and exciting? Unless you are as influential as Apple, you will not be in a position to lead industry standards with your new ideas. So, take a hint from Disney+ when they set out to compete with Netflix.
Netflix has dominated online streaming services since its streaming debut in 2007 setting the standard for all streaming services that would emerge as competition thereafter. Anyone wishing to break into the streaming market would have to be innovative and different — groundbreaking. Or would they? Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience states that users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users want your site to work the same way as all of the other sites they already know. If you are an emerging competitor to Netflix, you would do well to heed Jakob’s Law.
Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the…
Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience (Jakob’s Law) is simply a law that states that: “Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know” (Nielsen, 2000, par. 3). Leading User Experience advocate Jakob Nielsen (for whom the law was named) calls it “a law of nature” (NNgroup, 2017). Designers should design for what their users already know. Users will draw on their extensive experience of other people’s websites to anticipate how your site will function. Users will look to the top left of a website for a company logo, will look across the top of the site for the menu, and will look to the top right corner for a hamburger menu. Social icons are most often in a site’s footer. Following Jakob’s Law means looking to successful competitors and their site design and function when designing a site. This is exactly what most companies, large or small, do.
Disney+ was launched on November 12, 2019, nearly twelve years after the launch of Netflix’s ubiquitous streaming service. Netflix was a hard act to follow. Netflix’s market share in the U.S. SVOD (subscription video-on-demand) market was 29 percent in 2019. Disney+ designers needed to capture some of the loyal Netflix users to hit the ground running. As noted above, according to Jakob’s Law, users are most comfortable if your site works the same way as all of the other sites they frequent. Disney+ designers clearly took that human factor principle to heart when they designed their own streaming service. An early reviewer of the Disney+ platform says, “The biggest takeaway from going hands-on with Disney+ is that it feels familiar. Between Netflix and Hulu [another streaming service]…streaming users have grown accustomed to a fairly standardized interface and set of features on streaming platforms” (Alexander, 2019, par. 17). Netflix, having been around for twelve years, served as a beta test for Disney+. They had likely worked out the early bugs and issues and had refined streaming service functionality long before Disney+ came along.
Disney+ designers knew that users would not be switching over completely to Disney+. The new service would offer new content that would be unique to Disney+ but would not take the place of Netflix, and its very different content, in users’ lives. Therefore, they knew that users would not be willing to learn an entirely new system in the way that someone switching from, for instance, PC to Mac would be willing to invest in new ways of doing things on a new operating system. No, Disney+ users would more than likely be going back and forth from Netflix to Disney+ to watch a variety of content. Disney+ would not need to be innovators. In fact, “Disney+ hasn’t shaken up the streaming world with its user interface, it has a very average user experience which is very similar to that of Netflix” (Moosani, 2022, par. 14).
Mental Models and You
In an article from A List Apart, Jon Yablonski discusses key principles at the intersection of psychology and design. He considers Jakob’s Law in terms of “mental models” and suggests that, “users will transfer expectations they have built around one familiar product to another that appears similar” (Yablonski, 2018, par. 25). Streaming service users have certain expectations, certain mental models that they have created for themselves. For example, seasoned Netflix users know that viewing is organised by who is watching. Users can set up different profiles for each family member to keep viewing history and lists separate from each other. Disney+ have set up a similar, nearly identical, system with profiles for each family member. The only substantive difference is the shape of the icons — Netflix have square icons and Disney+ have round icons. This is an easy transference of expectation from the familiar mental models users have created around Netflix to Disney+.
Does This Look Familiar?
Once a user has logged into Netflix and selected a profile from the “Who’s Watching” screen, the landing page shows a large featured show or movie. Under that, a horizontal line of movies or TV show thumbnails is lined up under various headings such as “Continue Watching”, “My List”, and “Popular”. This is comparable to what Disney+ users will see after logging in and selecting a profile from the “Who’s Watching” screen — thumbnails of movie or TV shows in a horizontal line under the various headings. The dark background with lines of horizontal thumbnails is familiar and expected. Disney+ consumers arrived with a mental model of how a streaming service works after years of consuming media on Netflix and that mental model was confirmed on Disney+. “Mental models are just like the law of nature. If you violate them, your consumer might not forgive you” (Indraksh, 2020, par. 24). Disney+ did not disappoint. One can only imagine what might have happened if Disney+ decided to change the way users interacted with streaming services. According to Nielsen (NNgroup, 2017), users who become confused find the back button quite attractive!
Disney+ designers’ use of Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience has served Disney+ exceptionally well since its debut in 2019. Disney+ designers clearly followed this law and allowed it to inform the design and structure of their streaming service. Even Apple, with its innovative spirit, knew that following the basic Netflix structure when it debuted its Apple TV streaming service in 2019 was a wise and prudent move. According to Espósito (2022, par. 3), “HBO Max has 12% of the streaming share in the United States, while Hulu and Disney+ (both owned by Disney) dominate 13% market share each. Amazon Prime Video comes in second with 19% share. Unsurprisingly, Netflix remains in first place with 25% — although the number of subscribers dropped by 2% compared to the previous quarter”. Netflix are clearly market leaders.
Of course, there are tradeoffs to following Jakob’s Law. Following Jakob’s Law is prudent, but the urge to be innovative is strong. If it were not for innovative designers we would not have the iPhone, hamburger menus, or even streaming services! In fact, Netflix started off as a competitor to Blockbuster back in 1997. Blockbuster only had brick-and-mortar stores for renting its DVDs. Netflix innovated and would send out DVDs in the mail to its customers who would then return them by mail. They did this instead of following Blockbuster’s lead of physical stores. This was so successful that Blockbuster followed suit in the late 2000s, but too late to regain its market share. Netflix, as the only player in the market, could now innovate with its new streaming model. If Netflix had followed Jakob’s Law, it would be a brick-and-mortar DVD store. After all, that is what users expected at the time.Innovation can be risky, though. User experience is important.
Everything Old is New Again
User experience and its implications have become well-known concepts in the design world. Designing for optimal user experience is the goal of businesses, particularly those in highly competitive markets. The idea of a user’s experience predates, of course, the digital world. John Dewey, an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, talked about experience in the 1930s as it related to art and education (Lee et al., 2018). “Firstly, Dewey (1986) identified two main principles of experience: continuity and interaction. Continuity means that past experiences influence each recent experience, which in turn influences future experiences simultaneously” (Lee et al., 2018, p. 10 ). This concept is directly related to Jakob’s Law. Through this idea of continuity, users expect that the designs, websites, and apps that they next encounter will resemble and function much like the ones they have encountered in the past. Furthermore, “user and customer experiences are distinct from a person’s ordinary experiences; they have a start, an end, and a goal of the task accomplishment” (Lee et al., 2018, p. 10). In a familiar environment, users can focus on the unique product they encounter rather than on learning a new system or model. Violating Jakob’s law can leave your users confused and unable to accomplish their tasks. Following Jakob’s law gives your users a consistent user experience.
Bigger Than Netflix
If you are bigger than Netflix or Disney, you are probably not reading my article. If you are not quite that big, you will need to heed this advice. Try not to reinvent the wheel. Your users will expect your site to function like every other site they frequent. Use the mental models and users’ cumulative experience that users already have and keep your users focused on your product, your service, and your content.
“The most important consistency is consistency with user expectations” — William Buxton
Alexander, J. (2019, August 26). The Disney+ interface feels empty but elegant compared to Netflix. The Verge. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.theverge.com/2019/8/26/20830219/disney-plus-hands-on-first-look-demo-design-d23-wars-pixar-marvel
Espósito, F. (2022, January 24). Apple TV+ market share grows in the US while Netflix loses ground to its competitors. 9to5Mac. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://9to5mac.com/2022/01/24/apple-tv-market-share-grows-in-the-us-while-netflix-loses-ground-to-its-competitors/
Indraksh, A. (2020, May 11). Jakob’s law: How did facebook upset its users? Medium. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://uxdesign.cc/jakobs-law-how-did-facebook-upset-its-users-954cafb24095
Lee, H., Ka-hyun Lee, K., & Choi, J. (2018). A Structural Model for Unity of Experience: Connecting User Experience, Customer Experience, and Brand Experience. Journal of Usability Studies, 14(1), 8–34.
Moosani , M. (2022, January 4). Netflix vs Disney Plus: Adult Soul Against Inner Kid? [updated 2022]. ScreenBinge. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.screenbinge.com/resources/disney-plus-vs-netflix/
Nielsen, J. (2000, July 22). End of Web Design. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/end-of-web-design/
NNgroup. (2017, August 19). Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzb4mK9DiHM
Yablonski, J. (2018, October 5). The Psychology of Design. A List Apart. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://alistapart.com/article/psychology-of-design/