Stop Counting Clicks

Maybe it’s time to forget all that 3-click-rule nonsense.

The 3-click-rule is the Freddy Kreuger of web design advice. You think it’s finally dead and then it comes back and starts slashing up sensible debate about usable design. I’m hoping to convince you to stop talking about the 3-click rule. I don’t mean substituting it with the 4-click rule or the 5-click rule. You should stop counting clicks as a measure of usability altogether.

What is the 3-click rule?

The 3-click rule states that no page on your website should be more than three clicks away from any other page. The idea being that you’ll easily get to what you’re looking for because nothing is very far away. In the days when we were all on dial-up internet connections, there was a certain amount of sense to it.

At the time, the web was fairly new and there were very few conventions or best practices available to help us build good sites. So the 3-click rule exploded. Everyone who looked after or designed websites knew about it.

As the web grew in importance, so did usability. The flaws in the 3-click rule became fairly obvious to those of us who were observing the user experience. In many cases, it was attempts to adhere to this rule that introduced problems. Eventually somebody tested the rule itself.

Testing the 3-click rule

In 2003, Joshua Porter of User Interface Engineering wrote an article that should have killed the 3-click rule for good. He found that the number of clicks affects neither task completion nor user satisfaction. Porter says in his article:

“…the Three-Click Rule does not focus on the real problem. The number of clicks isn’t what is important to users, but whether or not they’re successful at finding what they’re seeking.”

I probably e-mail this article more often than any other usability article on the internet. As important and insightful as the article is, that’s not why I send it so often. I do so because I’m always talking to people who are fretting over the number of clicks on their website.

Click counting just won’t die

Once the 3-click rule had been disproved, you might expect click counting to fall out of fashion. But alas it hasn’t. It has been over 5 years since Porter wrote his article, but number of clicks keeps coming back as a measure of usability.

If you haven’t noticed this yourself, just ask a usability professional. Our clients are still finding it hard to accept recommendations that add more clicks. I fear the phrase ‘but that’s an extra click’ may follow me around forever.

It’s time for a cycling analogy

I’m a keen cyclist and there are quite a few hills near where I live. On a gradual hill, I shift into a fairly easy gear that still allows me to maintain a bit of speed. In order to get up the hill I might turn my pedals 300 times. Each pedal turn takes a bit of effort, but the hill isn’t very steep so I have no real problems getting up it.

The next hill I come to might be a lot steeper. In order to get up it I’m going to need to shift into my easiest gear. Each pedal turn is very easy, but I need to turn the pedals a lot more often in order to get up the hill. The steep hill is a more difficult task than the gradual one. By breaking the task up into lots of easy pedal turns I can still get to the top without problem.

So what has any of that got to do with websites? Well, in order to keep some tasks simple for your users, they may have to click more often. In the same way that a cyclist needs to perform more pedal strokes when climbing a steep hill.

Just as the cyclist is not counting her pedal strokes, your user is not counting his clicks. They both just want to get to where they’re going.

Not all clicks are the same

Say I’m going on holiday and need a travel insurance quote. I go to the homepage of my current bank and have the choice between Personal banking and Business banking on the main menu:

  1. Click 1- Personal banking. The page loads and I see a link for Insurance.
  2. Click 2 – Insurance. The Insurance page loads and I have the choice between Home, Car, Life and Travel.
  3. Click 3 – Travel insurance. On this page there’s a big brightly colored button that says ‘Get a quote’.
  4. Click 4 – Get a quote.

Those four clicks take very little effort, they are easy clicks. I’m happy with the process because each decision is simple. I might not have such an easy time on a competitor’s website.

Let’s say the web team of the competitor site is trying to reduce the number of clicks that users need to take.

Most of the products are available on the homepage. I’m a single click away from starting the quote process for travel insurance. But there’s too much to look at and I can’t see the link I need. By the time I find it, I’ve spent a long time scanning the page. On this site, I have a bad experience, despite being only a single click from what I needed.

This is not to say that adding extra clicks improves the user experience. It just means that some clicks are easy and others are more difficult. Removing 1 click from a 4-click user journey does not necessarily make it easier. You could just be making the other 3 clicks more difficult.

Keeping clicks easy

In his article, Porter explained that the 3-click rule was “well-intentioned but misguided”. I would add that the pursuit of the 3-click Utopia, and any click counting for that matter, can be a harmful distraction. Instead of improving the user experience, it can do the opposite.

The difference between my 2 examples for travel insurance was nothing to do with the number of clicks it took me to get to the page I need. It was because one site kept my choices simple and the other didn’t.

When Steve Krug says “Don’t make me think”, this is what he’s talking about. If his book had been titled “Make me think as hard as you like, but no more than 3 times” it might not have sold as well.

About the Author

David Hamill is a freelance usability consultant based in Edinburgh, UK. He helps organizations, both big and small, to improve their websites. David blogs about Good Usability and is on Twitter as @dav_hamill.

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Comments

  1. Very interesting articles, both this one and the one to which you link.

    An interesting thing you don’t mention is that on some websites with lots of text content, making a website “three click compatible” would imply having pages with lots of content (which implies that users have to scroll to get the whole information), whereas one can make a website more usable by having less content per page, and links to “further reading” for the non-essential stuff.

  2. Great article, I must admit that the saying has died out in some places. I’ve not heard it for a long long time. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones. Breaking up information is more important now than ever, as people are getting lazier and lazier, if they can’t see what they want right away without reading the page, then they’ll move on.

    We are all getting lazier. It’s a shame that that’s the case, but alas, it’s the big bold, bright and simple sites which seem to be the norm these days, take the fashion of having oversized form fields for example.

  3. Great article!! the next one should be about the scroll and below the fold, and why customers still think users don’t use scroll bar for more infomation. I hate this undeadly belief!

  4. This was interesting and overall a positive but I think misses out by not learning lessons from recent history, something that seems to happen often when I read advice about human-computer interaction these days.

    I advocate that what underlies decisions like this can be distilled down to a topic that’s been discussed among those with an interest in HCI for about 20-30 years.

    Specifically, the balance between creating an interface that is either:

    A) Primarily geared towards making simple tasks easy to perform very quickly. That maybe a store at somewhere you are likely to only make a one off purchase at which perhaps might include insurance website a simple application that has intentionally streamlined functionality.

    – OR –

    B) An interface designed to make more complex interactions easy, such a website designed for repeated and/or more complex interactions and which may require more functionality (and so by design more buttons and more nested options) and possibly a little more investment in time by users.

    Sooner or later with any moderately complex software you’ll need to make decisions about which option is the most appropriate for the current project or specific feature.

    If you hold to strongly to an inappropriate viewpoint you can either end up with an interface that tries to be ‘simple’ but ends up being too limited to be useful (or, ironically, confusingly difficult to use for end users as they try to use it in ways it doesn’t really lend itself to) or you can end up with a hideously over complicated interface with far too many options and an array of features that are rarely, if ever, used and are unlikely to be missed by many (but their removal might benefit everyone).

    Both negative outcomes make a difference to how easy to support the back end code is too, so it pays to get it right – not just for your end users, but to keep your code base easy to maintain.

  5. @Iain Collins: Hi Iain, I think I know what you mean. It sounds like the kind of thing I discussed in a post about simplicity a while ago.

  6. Good advice, David. I think it goes even deeper, though – any click rule is stuck in a slightly arrogant presumption that we know the paths our visitors will take. Even if we have a site that looks something like:

    Home > Topic > Product > Cart > Order

    …we can’t assume that everyone, especially in 2009, is going to land on the home-page. Many people are arriving from search and links from outside sites, often deep into our sites. In fact, if we’re doing SEO and marketing well, we should be encouraging this kind of deep-linking. The days where everyone lands at the home-page and takes the path we envision are long gone, IMO.

  7. Steve Kurg mentions in his book the ‘kayak theory’. Bascially don’t worry about how the person gets to the goal or how many clicks it takes him/her to get there. What is important is that they got there.

    Number of steps are irrelevant as long as the user is still happy.

  8. I totally agree with this concept that the world has changed and we must change with it. The designs need to be more intuitive rather than based on preset beliefs like 3-click etc.

    Google is the biggest example… As some call it the “Banana for the monkey”, you give the user what he needs and when he needs it. Google is probably the site that delivers the largest amount of data / information… and with what? One text field and a button! As a matter of fact you don’t really have to click even once to perform your desired task i.e to look for stuff. The page loads, the focus is already in the text field, you type stuff, it automatically suggests what you may have intended to write, then all you have to do is press enter… I didn’t even have to touch the mouse and I can see what I want! Now I’m comfortable to scan around the millions of pages becuase I know I am looking at what I should be looking at.

    On the other hand Gmail is an extremely good example of how everything is right there where you need it. There is a hell lot of text and links in there, but you still get the job done.

    My whole point is that everyone should stop considering the “web” and the “user” as primary and most important objects. We need to realize that it is simple interaction between “humans”. We should be focusing on how human beings behave in real life, the human psychology should be the main focus. Just for instance, mum puts a note on a fridge to “pick up dry clean and little johnny from school” or sometimes a note in the envelop on the dinning table saying “I’m sorry bob, I’m going to my parents’ and taking kids with me, call me when you are over your drinking problem” :-P (these are just fake names).

    Point is why on the fridge? or why on the dinning table? Only because when that person comes in the house thinking “Man! that really hot chick asked for my number today… I’m gonna get laiiiddd…………. what the… my wife left me a note on the dining table, man that looks baa’ad” :)

    Was the wife who is fed up with his husband’s drinking problem – a usability expert!? Is she a designer or a developer who thinks she is so damn good at conveying her message or getting the job done that she should write a damn book about it and make it a world-wide rule, that every other should follow? No! She is just a human being, knowing how to behave with her audience, i.e. her drunk husband, who is also somewhat human! :)

    And what did she use to convey her message… simple common sense! Keep it simple people! There’s no rocket science in it!

  9. PS: I did not mean to taunt on the author or on his profession, I’m referring to these 3-click type crappy rules and stuff.

  10. Great post, David.

    An inportant aspect to this is getting the content to the site visitor really pronto – less than a New York second. If it’s taking toooo long then she may never even bother to look at the page – she is off somewhere else.

    But when the site visitor sees that each click takes her very quickly towards her destination she just doesn’t care how many clicks are needed. If you can get her clicking towards her target you have got her engaged.

    She does not even know at the start how many clicks it’s going to be. Start with some simple and big categories so she doesn’t have to think too hard or be too precise with her mouse.

  11. David what are your thoughts on registration or checkout forms that tab through thus requiring multiple clicks to enter information. I recently purchased my car insurance with privileged and was amazed that I had to click through over half a dozen forms to receive a quotation then purchasing. Is it better to be logical through steps to make it more intuitive or better to have all the form information in one single page.

  12. Hi David

    Just wanted to say I loved your article – so well structured and written.

    I design forms and find I am often coming up against a parallel problem: clients insisting on fewer questions in order to make the form “simpler”. In reality, having MORE questions often makes the form more usable, because then each question deals with only one concept and the respondent is walked through what would otherwise be a complex logic puzzle.

    Your hill cycling analogy was a fantastic way to describe why more clicks can be better than fewer. I think it would work equally well for my more rather than fewer questions problem, and hope you don’t mind if I quote you often!

    Many thanks,
    Jessica

  13. @Nadir: Wow Nadir, I thought I was bad for meandering analogies. No offence taken. I didn’t think there was anything there that could cause offence.

    @John : Site Doublers: Hi John. Yes, you’re absolutely right. What you’re talking about is what Jared spool calls the ‘scent of information’. As long as the scent of what we’re looking for is getting stronger, we don’t care how much we’re clicking.

    @Sahus Pilwal: Hi Sahus, I’m afraid there’s no straight answer to that. The problem with insurance quotes is, they ask a lot of questions. In fact many insurance companies have realised that their sales drop as they ask more questions. So they write off the risk of not asking as many with the benefit of making more sales.

    It’s also one of the reasons that most people use comparison websites for insurance. Not only are they finding a good deal, but they’re also minimising the amount of forms they have to fill in just to compare some prices.

  14. Excellent post! I agree, but have an exception…my question would be what about the balance of satisfying your repeat users, with your new users?

    If you have a site where common tasks are performed by loyal users of the site, I do believe having a number of clicks becomes a frustration to them performing their tasks. Having access to a complex variety of features a single click away would actually be a benefit. It may take 1 or 2 times to learn where the items they need are, but in the long run wouldn’t it actually save them time in completing their goal once they establish a familiarity with the interface?

  15. Abdurrahman Gemei June 18, 2009

    I partially agree with you. Even though it is called “the three-click rule”, ever since I knew about it, I don’t think of it as a rule. Just like any concept in the world, it has its downfalls.

    I use it when clients ask for a splash page or a flash intro. After all, I only do websites for small- to medium-sized businesses. Believe it or not, we still have people in this world who think users visit their business website to play around and watch shapes flying endlessly in a meaningless animation.

    I don’t think I would “count” clicks when I design a website. It is not a standard, but rather a way to back an argument against inefficient techniques and design flaws. Don’t let people who misunderstood this “rule” change the way you think about it. The three-click concept is partially correct, in my opinion.

  16. As always David, a great article! Personally I had never heard of the three click rule until now, but it is obvious that such a rule would spell disaster. If only such a simple little rule existed! :)

  17. An extension to this would be “single task at a time”. Websites shouldn’t look like bank applications from ’90.

    Great article!

  18. @Abdurrahman Gemei: Hi Abdurrahman, what you’re talking about isn’t a rule about clicks. It’s the ‘don’t put pointless sh1t on your website’ rule. Seriously though, my point is that you should keep decisions easy. I’m not claiming that your users won’t get annoyed with pointless clicks that they know they shouldn’t need to perform.

    @Jeff Schinella: Hi Jeff, I see your point here. I was hoping nobody would bring this up, because it’s very difficult for me to explain in words. You see, each example of this is different and the advice I’d give really depends on the site in question and the target users as well.

    The difference between the new user and the frequent user is that the new user is foraging and making decisions and the frequent user is on auto-pilot. Notice though that I say ‘frequent’ user. A repeat user doesn’t always remember where the thing they need is.

    If you can predict a repetitive task that your repeat users are going to do time and time again, then you might need to prioritise this task. I could spend the rest of my Friday night going into detail about this, but I’d just be repeating something that’s already been written rather well. And there’s a rather lovely glass of red wine sitting here that I really must drink.

    Have a look at the article about red-route usability by David Travis.

  19. Great post,

    This “rule” fits in nicely with all of the other adages that no one really get right.

    1) “You can’t have your cake and eat it to”
    The truth is you can’t eat your cake unless you have it… but you can’t eat your cake and have it either.

    2) “Things happen in threes”
    An oddly arbitrary seeming saying derived from the axiom, “if it happens once it might happen again, if it happens twice it is likely to happen again, if it happens three times then it is a pattern and will continue repeating”.

    3) The 3-click rule.
    Better known as (if you ask me) “Don’t make people do pointless stuff to get what they want”. With an addendum being, unless the reward is so great that they’re willing.

    I’m with Abdurrahman Gemei: Usability “rules” are devices to communicate an underlying philosophy about HCI or just good design to people otherwise more interested in the product than the method.

    Thanks for laying to rest or at least framing it appropriately.

  20. That is very true. I remember once I attended a workshop from Jared Spool, the user interface expert. He mentioned there was a test for users to find what they want on a site. And it turned out that the users are not to give up until they find what they are looking for, as long as the process is always promising and giving the feedback to the users that they are getting closer to the destination, no matter how many clicks it takes.

    So the 3-click rule is out of date, or is never true.

  21. Well… I think there should be a balance… The 3-click rule is more of a guide than a rule.

    No one would like to get to a specific page with 6 clicks if it could be done with 3 or 4 clicks. Even if the navigation is straight foward, It’s much more comfortable to use less clicks than lots of it.

  22. Mike Beach June 26, 2009

    For usability, the three-click rule seems a bit outmoded, but there are other business reasons (read “non-user experience”) that you would want to maintain a three click link structure. As Dr. Pete points out: SEO. Websites are completely dependent upon the search engines to capture a user’s attention. No one will get to experience a perfectly designed website if they can’t find it. I think the challenge is figure out an SEO-friendly approach that won’t turn off users.

  23. Great article.. I completely agree specially to the “Not all clicks are the same” part…

  24. @Victor Soares: Hi Victor, I’d recommend not thinking about it at all. I’m not suggesting you add clicks where they are not needed. Just don’t count them. Concentrate on keeping things clear and simple and the clicks will take care of themselves.

  25. Nice article David, I hope it helps killing the 3-clicks rule.

  26. Thank you! We have this discussion on a regular basis and amazed at how many legitimate business leaders still get snagged by something they heard / read 3 jobs ago. This, “dial-up optimization” and “above the fold”… can you tackle these next?

  27. This is enlightening and hilarious!
    Thanks for the good work.

  28. In our business, its a one click rule! People need to be sensitive to their audience.

  29. Tha article is great, since it forces development of the web usability science. Nice to know that it IS developing and attracts people so much :)

    What I’d like to note is that the “3-click rule” really souldn’t be percieved as an everyday solution, but nevertheless — I wouldn’t quit counting clicks anyway. Don’t be too strict and underestimate clicks ;)

  30. I thought that was a helpful article to understand the 3clicks and the usability of the website. I

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