The 3-click rule, myth or proven fact?

Easy access to key information has always been a priority. But the 3-click rule is just an unsubstantiated arbitrary practical condition.

The 3-click rule

The 3-click rule is a persistent, unofficial heuristic that states that you shouldn’t have more than 3 clicks on any page to access the information you want. Often designers apply this rule for site navigation and information retrieval tasks, but some also use it for other types of tasks.

The 3-click rule assumes users will be frustrated with tasks that require more than three clicks to complete. It is an easy way to assess the usability of information searches, but its simplicity is also a disadvantage.

The biggest problem with this rule is that, to date, it has not been validated in any published research. Joshua Porter’s research has actually refuted it. Research has shown that the number of users does not increase when it takes more than 3 clicks to complete a task, but the rate of positive feedback does not decrease either. Limiting engagement is really important, but the big picture is a little more complicated than just counting clicks and setting the maximum number of clicks.

Counting clicks by itself is not an important metric for several reasons:

  1. The number of clicks required to complete a task will depend not only on the design, but also on the complexity of the task, so it is impossible to set a specific number that applies to all tasks.
  2. Not all clicks are the same: some lead to long waiting times, while others lead to instant.
  3. The number of clicks is not the most important metric – there are many design aspects that contribute to the user experience, no matter how many clicks are needed.

In this article, we’ll focus on why you shouldn’t always blindly use the 3-click rule when designing IA websites and navigation.

NYC.gov. Finding the spot to report a broken water meter takes only 3 clicks, but still requires a lot of scrolling through sources and scrolling. On the home page, users should click New York Resources (1) and then view a long list of links. Halfway at the bottom of this list is the Housing and Build section with the Renters link (2), which will also show you a very long list of water meter complaints links (3). At the very bottom is the 133rd link in the list.

The origin of the 3-click rule

The earliest mention of the 3-Click Rule is found in Jeffrey Zeldman’s 2001 book Use Your Talent on the Internet. This book does not support the theory that 3 clicks is the maximum that everyone should adhere to. But it is said that “many people agree that netizens are driven by the desire to quickly satisfy their interests. If they cannot find what they are looking for in three clicks, they immediately go to another site. “

It is strange that over the many years of this rule, no research has been done to scientifically substantiate this statement.

The 3-click rule leads to overly congested navigation

One of the main implications of developing the 3-click rule is that navigation menus shouldn’t require multiple clicks at different levels to find the information you want. While this is a reasonable idea, its implementation often requires prioritizing broad IA (information architectures) over deep IA.

Designers use many specific top-level categories in their menus to avoid long clicks. As with very broad and very deep IA structures, there are some usability issues. Very broad IA with a lot of categories at the top level is a bit tricky for the user and requires a lot of space for the user interface. Very deep structures with multiple top-level categories and many levels require either a lot of menu interactions or a lot of time waiting for the landing pages to load.

Interestingly, many designers have to choose between two UX myths: either no more than 3 clicks or no more than 7 main navigation categories. This is why such simple rules, no matter how reasonable they sound, are useless – they are not supported by any research and the result is confusion.

Practice is better than just counting clicks

Counting clicks is an unfortunate way to measure engagement and task performance because it ignores the cognitive factors that arise when users need to read and perceive a long list of parameters, figure out where they are in relation to site structure, or even calculate how much more work they need. to do on the way to your goal. These elements are just as important as the number of clicks required to navigate to a specific page.

For good navigation, the following are most important:

  • Make sure menu items have a specific, understandable message and avoid vague or unfamiliar terms.
  • Establish a clear location on the site (e.g. breadcrumbs, local subnavigation) so that users understand where they are in IA.
  • Avoid layered hierarchical dropdown menus in favor of mega menus. Hierarchical (or cascading) dropdown menus are often error-prone, require precise mouse movements and only show one portion of the IA site at a time. Mega-menus typically display multiple levels of information hierarchy and allow users to compare multiple paths at once to understand which “neighborhood” they should explore. They also support easy bug fixing.
The 3-click rule, myth or proven fact?
Cardinal Health uses hierarchical dropdown menus for navigation, which are difficult to interact with, are error prone, and provide much less context than mega menus.
  • Identify the most important tasks in finding information and link to them from the home page and other important pages.
  • Provide clean landing pages or nav nodes at key points along the way. These landing pages offer groups of links, often with images or other elements, that help with unfamiliar terminology, provide stopping-in-progress (which can be tracked with the back button), and provide easy side-to-side navigation to siblings in the same category. Remember that in most IA, the higher levels of the hierarchy are general categories, while the deeper ones are more specific.
The 3-click rule, myth or proven fact?
The Accenture Cybersecurity Navigation Center page contains lists of links that would otherwise be multiple levels of hierarchical drop-down menus. The page also contains useful descriptions of each link for users.
  • Make sure that when you click on a new page, the page load time is minimal. 3 clicks with long load times are much worse than 5 clicks with instant downloads.

Let’s summarize

Limiting the amount of effort required to access key information or complete a task is important, but still the three-click rule is highly controversial. Better to worry about good site navigation so that the content is clear and understandable.

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