Eliminate guessing, not clicks

An image showing a large number of books in a confusing fashion

Something I hear in almost every stakeholder interview or kick-off session is “there are too many clicks” or “everything should be within 3 clicks.”

Even though the 3-click rule is an unsupported, arbitrary guideline, it’s not something to simply brush off as inaccurate. What the rule attempts to communicate—that information should be as easy to find without guessing—is worth paying attention to.

Making information easy to find requires effort, though and recklessly slashing clicks is a dangerous way to achieve that objective.

Simplicity and the risk of cutting clicks

Think of the number of clicks as an input. Focusing solely on inputs is easy, but you risk ignoring desired outputs (task performance) and outcomes (a positive user experience). Cutting clicks or adhering to the 3-click rule values simplicity without considering logic.

The true meaning of simplicity is subjective and derived from only one person: our user. Some systems may seem complex and burdened with too many layers when in fact, they need those layers to make sense to users. The 3-click rule is forced simplicity that doesn’t consider much else. By over-simplifying how information is organized and found, we risk creating:

  • Confusing relationships. “This section fits better here, but we’re already 3-clicks away from the home page. Let’s put it a level higher in this section that’s only 2-clicks away.” The result of thinking this way is a disconnect between the user’s mental model and the system’s design. The outcome of this confusing relationship is that information is more difficult to find

  • Unnecessary breadth. Reducing clicks puts a limit on content depth but doesn’t necessarily reduce the volume of content. Imagine trying to find your way around a large website or application and being presented with an overwhelming number of options right from the start. An unchanged volume without depth will force the design to display more specific content and categories too soon, possibly out of context, and likely alongside a large number of other options. According to Hick’s Law, a greater number of choices results in the user needing more time to think about their choices and make a decision.

How to eliminate guessing

There’s a degree of guesswork each time a user encounters something in your design for the first time. As designers our goal is to reduce the mental and physical effort needed to perform a task, at all points in the experience.

Instead of reducing clicks, try the following to eliminate forcing the user to guess:

  • Understand priority. When all content and features are positioned as a priority, it can be difficult to create a menu system that makes sense. It also makes it difficult to rationalize placing content ‘deeper’ in a navigation structure. Often times, large volumes of content are a reflection of organizational, and not user-driven, prioritization. Understanding what matters most to users is the best way to cut through arbitrary prioritization. In my experience, conducting a brief top task survey is an excellent first step in clarifying what users are actually trying to find and do.
  • Support low-commitment navigation. Visiting a new page on a guess, waiting for it to load, and examining what’s there, wastes time and annoys users. Instead, use expanding menus as a window into the content of a section before the user commits to making a selection. Where it makes sense, microcopy can accompany menu items or sections to help explain what users can expect to find within.
  • Understand mental models. A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. For example how users expect a navigation to work and where certain content might be found. An information structure that matches your users’ mental model will be much easier to use, even when there are more layers to click through. Since mental models are based on beliefs and not fact, you’ll need to work with your users to help create a hierarchy and labelling system that makes sense to them. Try a card sort to help understand these beliefs, and a tree test to explore what you end up designing.
  • Don’t fear the deep. Lastly, get comfortable with the idea that adding depth (or clicks) breaks complex tasks into steps. The tips above will help ensure those steps are clear and as simple as possible.

Making choices easier for users isn’t about counting and cutting clicks. Taking the time to get to know who you’re designing for and making decisions that support exploration will go a long way in cutting something far more important: guesswork.


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