The principle of familiarity in UX design

You’ll agree, never change a winning team. That’s true in web design as well: users prefer your website to work the same way as other websites they already know.


Lia Crupi

UX / UI designer

As Steve Krug - author of the famous UX design book “Don’t make me think”- has written, the less users have to think about interfaces or design, the more they can focus on accomplishing their goal on your website. 

“Usability is about people and how they understand things, not about technology.”

Steve Krug

As designers, it’s sometimes easy to get so caught up in the design process that you forget that  you’re designing experiences for human beings. One of the most important advantages a designer can have in these cases is to understand how the human brain works. 

In this blog post we are going to look at the principle of “familiarity”, and how it plays a crucial role in user experience.

The Internet User Experience law

You’ll agree, never change a winning team. That’s true in web design as well: users prefer your website to work the same way as other websites they already know. 

Jakob Nielsen describes this behaviour in the Internet User Experience law, otherwise known as Jakob’s Law. When people spend time online, they get a cumulative experience of numerous websites. This eventually adds up to their understanding of how a website should work and what the design conventions are on the internet. Meaning, if your website works the same as most other websites, your users will immediately know how to use it and therefore can focus on enjoying your content, products and services.

The Principle of Least Astonishment

Another principle that has an impact on the usability a website, is that of Least Astonishment.

The Principle of Least Astonishment suggests that

“If a necessary feature has a high astonishment factor, it may be necessary to redesign this feature.” 

Again, the idea is not only to utilize the best elements of an existing system, which users know well, but also to lower the learning curve for a new system. The Principle of Least Astonishment suggests that the result of any operation on a website or in a software should be obvious, consistent, and predictable. In other words, the user should not be astonished by the system.

For example, if you click on a “Add to cart” button, the pair of shoes you fancy should go first to the cart icon on the top right corner rather than leading you directly to the payment page.

The cognitive load

The idea of cognitive load was first explained by educational psychologist John Sweller in his paper “Cognitive Load Theory, Learning Difficulty, and Instructional Design.”

Just like “the cognitive load produced by learning tasks can impede students’ ability to process new information and to create long-term memories” (Psychologist World), the cognitive load that a user interface imposes, can use up much of the mental resources that is required to operate a system, browse a website or use an app.

Matter of fact is that some amount of cognitive load will occur, no matter how mindfully a web experience is designed. And while heavy cognitive load can harm both user experience and conversion rate, it can easily be lessened by making designs predictable.

It’s clear that relying on the concept of familiarity when designing a website can spare users a headache and can improve a website’s performance. So, which concrete steps can be taken to utilize this concept on a website?  We’ve put together seven easy measures that will help users better navigate your web content.

1. Make instructions simple and reduce the number of tasks the user has to perform - Good design is self-explanatory. Short copy, clean screens, distinct primary and secondary buttons — not much place for error and confusion.

2. Keep copy intuitive and straightforward - Users don’t want to read, in fact they are mostly going to ignore content that they don’t need to complete their tasks on a website. Keep it obvious and straightforward!

3. Reduce the amount of information your user has to keep in mind - Not having to remember the status of the system (in this case — the items in your basket), reduces cognitive load as this piece of information does not need to be stored in the user’s working memory.

4. Use existing design patterns that are familiar to your user - Since our brain tends to reduce the amount of information that has to be processed, it automates many of the actions that we use everyday. Who can mistake this grid view of items to be something else than a web shop?

5. Be predictable - Interfaces should behave the way users expect them to behave. Clicking on a tag such as “Animation” will filter out the content accordingly, no unexpected surprises here!

6. Design mindful of how users read online - According to a famous research by Norman Nielsen Group, users have adapted to bad web design over the years by developing special behaviours to navigate content. Tracking users’ eye movement while reading online has revealed that users often scan pages in a F-pattern. In the example above, designers at Wired have made the most out of this behaviour: instead of trying change the habit, they have built the content in a way that matches the F-pattern.

7. Reduce visual clutter - A clear call to action, with no distractions nor room for doubts.


To wrap up

As we have seen, a user’s previous experience with websites can have drastic effects on their behaviour and expectations towards new websites, and content on the internet in general. 

For designers and content creators this means that we should build on the existing mental models users have about how websites work, and offload cognitive tasks from our users: look for alternatives to long texts, information to memorize, etc. Can we instead show a picture, re-display previously entered information, or set a smart default? 

At Contrast, we make sure that the users have a straight path to their goals by clearing out the obstacles beforehand.