The New Web Usability Rule: Don't Count Clicks

POSTED ON September 09, 2010

The number of clicks required to reach information on a website has long been touted as a rule that every good User Experience Designer needs to follow. We’ve been told that information should be reachable within just three clicks. Well, here’s an alternate view: maybe counting clicks doesn’t matter that much after all.

Rather than spending so much time and energy abiding by the old “3-Click Rule”, I propose that we modernize this theory a bit. UX Designers and other web professionals should begin to focus more on something called “Progressive Disclosure”, a design technique that sequences information and actions across several screens to avoid overwhelming the user, even if that means pushing content behind 4, 5, or even - gasp - 6 clicks.

Why Use Progressive Disclosure

Progressive disclosure focuses a user’s attention by reducing the cognitive workload, or reducing the amount of information presented. By only providing the information the user needs to make a decision or complete a task, web professionals can prevent users from getting confused or frustrated and leaving the site.

There are a couple of reasons why UX Designers work with progressive disclosure.

  • Humans can consciously process about 40 small pieces of information per second. In comparison, the average American is presented with over 40,000,000 pieces of information per second. Overwhelming, right? One of the biggest mistakes in creating a website is to give too much information at once.
  • Users only read about 20% of what you write anyway… best cut down the information and make the most of what they do read!

Making progressive disclosure a key component in the design process increases the level of usability.

  • Progressive disclosure helps prioritize a user’s attention by allowing them to only spend time on sections that are likely to be useful to their goals.
  • Hiding advanced settings or further content can help users avoid mistakes and saves them from spending time on content they aren’t looking for.

As renowned usability expert Jacob Nielsenpoints out, the use of progressive disclosure improves three of his five components of usability: learnability, efficiency of use, and error rate.

Case Study

Progressive disclosure has been a successful technique all over the web. Take, for example, UK-based grocery delivery service Abel & Cole. Abel & Cole has been lauded time and again for its usable and intuitive interface, and the business has become quite successful in recent years, partly due to the site’s ease of use.

When a user chooses to check out at Abel & Cole, he or she is directed to a multi-page checkout section that is broken into digestible chunks of information and directions. This requires by definition, however, that there be multiple clicks between the homepage and the inevitable goal of completing the process. By the time the user has gotten to the end of checkout, he or she has clicked a minimum of 10 times! (And that is only if the user knew exactly what product to purchase.)

The number of clicks hasn’t negatively impacted the number of sales, but rather, increased them. Because the site is clearly labeled and the sections explained and delineated, the customers at Abel & Cole always know exactly where they are on the site, where they need to go in order to complete a sale, and the next steps they should take. No click-counting required.

The Implications of Click-Counting

Progressive disclosure is a great way to focus attention and keep our users from becoming overwhelmed or wasting time. Consider the implications on progressive disclosure of strictly and blindly follow the 3-Click Rule. How do you hide further content in an information dense site while keeping your content three or fewer clicks away? Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it makes more sense to use progressive disclosure and increase the number of clicks, rather than overwhelm the users with too much information.

Counting clicks is not the most important part of information design. Users are very willing to click through content. In fact, most users won’t consciously notice that they are clicking if they get digestible chunks of information at each click, and they continue along a path that is appropriate to their goals. Web professionals and clients alike can benefit from adopting this outlook and staying abreast of recent user experience research. Remember, a site is only as successful as its users think it is.

I say, don’t count clicks!

Erica Joy Decker

User Experience Designer, Marker Seven

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