The myth of the 3 click rule
The three click rule is an outdated and unofficial guideline about the design of web navigation. It suggests that website users should be able to find all content with no more than three clicks (or taps, on a touchscreen device). This rule has been around almost as long as the web itself. It’s based on the assumption that website visitors will become frustrated and abandon the site if they cannot find what they are looking for in three clicks or less.
The problem is that this rule was never based on any data or research. In fact, it has been largely debunked. Research by Joshua Porter of User Interface Engineering (UIE) and others proves that tasks that require more than three clicks don’t result in increased user drop off, nor does satisfaction decrease.
However, as it is memorable and easy to understand, it has continued to come up in conversations. It’s often used to support feedback on navigation and information architecture proposals.
References to this rule go back more than 20 years. In his 2001 book, Taking Your Talent to the Web, Jeffrey Zeldman wrote that "web users are driven by a desire for fast gratification. If they can’t find what they’re looking for within three clicks, they might move on to somebody else’s site". It’s worth noting that this statement was not backed up with any research.
In the days of dial up internet, counting clicks might have made a little more sense, if you can remember the long loading times of web pages back then. Also, this rule originated at a time when the web was a fraction of its current size. Sites and processes have become much more complex in the intervening years.
However, this notion was based on the idea that web users are driven by a desire for fast gratification. People want to do the least amount of work possible, in order to find what they're looking for or complete their task. So perhaps that does not equate to the number of clicks.
Where problems arise
Some website designs have been influenced by this rule, resulting in sites that have an overly broad and shallow hierarchy and long lists of top level categories to choose from. With large ecommerce sites, this can quickly become problematic, as it can mean that products would need to be grouped into broad categories that are difficult to browse.
This may make information available with fewer clicks, but it also makes the effort required between each click much greater.
Every action taken on a website comes with an “interaction cost”. This means the reading, scrolling, comprehension of information, attention switching and so on that is required in order to find what you’re looking for. This is all in addition to the clicks. A screen dense with content and links can require a higher interaction cost, resulting in more time and effort being spent between clicks. This causes unnecessary friction for the user, which is more likely to be the cause of them abandoning the task.
How to achieve the real goal
If the actual goal is to find what you’re looking for or to complete a task quickly and efficiently, there are better guidelines to follow than the number of clicks.
Align flows with user needs
Your site structure, features and flows should be intuitive and obvious. They should align with user needs and expectations. This can be achieved through user research. Navigation patterns and user flows can be tested through card sorting and tree testing.
Users rely on link text to find their way around your site. Ensure that these links have strong labels that are as specific and concise as possible. I’ve written recently about how to write better button copy.
Make it easy for users to find their way around. They need to know where they are in a site or a process, how to get around and how to get out. Give context on where they are. A combination of good content and consistent navigation can accomplish this. For example, good landing pages, as well as reliable wayfinding patterns such as breadcrumbs and local navigation.
If they are working their way through a process, such as a multi-step form, provide progress indicators.
Provide good associative navigation, in the right context. This type of navigation makes useful connections between related content across a site structure. Examples are spotlights linking similar types of content and links to important tasks from the homepage or other key screens.
All of the above should make the number of clicks irrelevant.
Reducing the effort required to find information or accomplish a task is an important part of UX design. However, counting the number of clicks does not solve this problem. Three is not a magic number and this has been proven.
It’s not about the number of clicks. The three click rule should not be replaced by a four click rule. What is most important and what can be achieved through research and testing is to provide the right content, well organised with clear wayfinding, in the right context. This will help your users get to their destination.
If you need help reinventing your digital presence or if you want to optimise your content, contact us today.
References and recommended reading:
Testing the Three-Click Rule
Why Interaction Cost Matters to UX
Tree Testing 101
Tips for better button copy
10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design