Stop Counting Clicks The 3 Click Rule is Nonsense

For years, UK designers have had a rule of thumb called the three click rule. The idea is that users should never have to click more than three times to get to anything on a website, or they will probably abandon it. Funny thing is, this rule wasn’t based on data or research. It was just someone’s best guess back in the 1990s. And it just hasn’t stood up to modern research.

There’s no evidence that users give up after three clicks. Specifically, what is true is that users want to do the least amount of work that they need to in order to find the stuff that they’re looking for. But three isn’t a magic number. It’s because all clicks aren’t the same. Some clicks tick, more mental effort to figure out beforehand, and some are much easier. Think of clicks like currency users don’t want to spend more than they have to, but some clicks are like a one dollar bill and others are more like a five dollar or ten dollar bill. When you buy something in a store, you don’t really care how many pieces of paper you hand over. You care how much money you’re spending. I’d rather hand over for one dollar bills than even a single five, for example. So if I have a site where it takes me five clicks to get to what I’m looking for, but every click is on an obvious well named link, each one of those clicks takes only a small amount of thought.

But if this other site takes only three clicks, but I have to think really hard before each click, well, it’s going to be much more difficult than the other one. So what makes one click easier than another? It’s actually pretty simple. You need to have really clear link labels. The words you use for links in your content and your menu item should be instantly meaningful to users with new jargon or branded terms. Keep them short and put the most important word first so that users have to read as little as possible.

The overall structure should be obvious and it should match users expectations. So require doing some research like a card sort or tree test to understand your users mental models. Users should feel like they’re making progress towards their goal, especially if it’s several clicks to get there. Use things like breadcrumbs and local navigation to help users know where they currently are. As users drill down into a deep structure, they may get to fork in the road where differences between links get harder to understand. In those cases, use landing pages that help give context and explanations of unfamiliar terminology. When users make mistakes, don’t force them to start over. If someone clicks on the wrong thing, you don’t want them to start at the beginning and then you die through a lot of hover enabled dropdown menus.

The more you break up these long tasks into several steps with landing pages and local navigation, the better your users will find it. Remember, while the three click rule itself isn’t true, the basic idea behind it is users want to do the least amount of work necessary to get to things, but stop counting clicks, pay more attention how much thought and effort each click takes.

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