The Fallacy Of The 3‑Click Rule In Web Design

Why fol­low­ing the three-click rule actu­al­ly gen­er­ates more prob­lems than it solves.

Larry Marine By Larry Marine from Intuitive Design. Join the discussion » 0 comments

The three-click rule orig­i­nal­ly referred to site nav­i­ga­tion, stat­ing that a user should be able to access any infor­ma­tion with­in three clicks. It is derived from the mis­tak­en belief that users will become frus­trat­ed and aban­don their task if they can­not find what they are look­ing for with­in three clicks. A com­mon result is a very wide, but shal­low nav­i­ga­tion struc­ture and/or cat­e­go­riza­tion and group­ing schemes that don’t make much sense to the users.

Perception Of Progress

Rather than arti­fi­cial­ly forc­ing every task to fit with­in three clicks, focus instead on mak­ing sure the task flow is clear­ly under­stand­able and that each click results in obvi­ous progress toward the user’s desired out­come.

For the most part, as long as users feel con­fi­dent that each click leads them down the right path, they will endure far more than three clicks.

For instance, the aver­age check­out process is rarely done in just three clicks; yet, users seem to suc­ceed quite well with the five to sev­en clicks in a typ­i­cal check­out task sequence:

  1. View Cart
  2. Go to Check­out
  3. Enter Ship to Info
  4. Select Ship­ping method
  5. Cred­it Card info
  6. Review Order
  7. Get Con­fir­ma­tion

Of course, sep­a­rat­ing the task into too many clicks can have an adverse effect on the users, as well. Break­ing up a typ­i­cal check­out sequence so that each ele­ment of a cred­it card and billing address is on a sep­a­rate page would sure­ly frus­trate any user.

Task Analysis Is Key

The point is that the num­ber of clicks is a poor design met­ric. The more suc­cess­ful design­ers con­duct a thor­ough task analy­sis and opti­mize the task sequence to man­age the per­cep­tion of progress rather then the num­ber of clicks.

More­over, the task sequence should be based on the users’ per­cep­tion of the task, not the developer’s sense of what is tech­ni­cal­ly effi­cient.

For instance, while it is more effi­cient to cre­ate one long check­out page, usabil­i­ty test­ing has shown that users don’t per­form well with that approach.

The design­er needs to ful­ly under­stand how users orga­nize or group the var­i­ous steps of a task flow and design to that flow.

Easy To Use Is Hard To Design

The three-click rule is just anoth­er one of those com­mon false met­rics that lazy design­ers fol­low with­out due dili­gence. Task analy­sis is hard­er to do but pro­vides a much more suc­cess­ful result, and, in the end, isn’t that what you want?

As we say in the UX design busi­ness, if it’s easy to design, it’s hard to use. If it’s easy to use, it’s hard to design.

Does your design live by the three-click rule? Why or why not?

Larry Marine

Written by Larry Marine

Director, UX Design, Intuitive Design

Larry Marine earned his degree in User Experience/User Centered Design from the father of UX, Dr. Don Norman. A UX Consultant for 25 years, Larry has created some of the most successful designs on the web, including Proflowers, FedEx Print, and others. His success comes from looking at web interactions very differently, from the user's perspective. His talks, though infrequent, are often some of the most well-attended and reviewed at various conferences. His depth and breadth of experience and knowledge puts him in that rare breed often referred to as a true UX expert.

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