I often run into folks scarred by the 3-click rule. I imagine that they must have endured some medieval torture for breaking the rule in the past because they argue for it with such vehemence. But the 3-click rule should have been put to rest many, many years ago.
History of the 3-click Rule
The 3-click rule’s origin is the 1990’s along with Crystal Pepsi, Zubaz pants and ‘Talk to the Hand.’ And like those other trends, the 3-click rule is just as outdated (and shouldn’t come back either). It was created at a time when the internet was a fraction of its current size. Websites and online processes have become much bigger and more complex and trying to force too much into too few screens is overwhelming and confusing for users.
Now, I know some scarred folks are getting ready to argue with me. Two years ago I was speaking at a UX conference and made the point about how out of date the 3-click rule is and several participants were ready to argue the point. Luckily part of my talk was to have the audience rate the pizza ordering process of major and local pizza restaurants. When all was said and done, the process most attendees (by far) liked was the longest process (highest number of clicks/screens).
How could more clicks lead to better UX?
With a complex process, they only way to shorten it to three clicks is to present the user with an overwhelming number of decisions to make on each screen which create tension for the user.
It is important to understand the cognitive load you’re placing on your users when you give them large numbers of loosely related decisions. I say ‘loosely related’ because while you can argue they all have to do with ordering a pizza, clearly the decision process between what kind of crust you want is different from how you are going to pay for the pizza.
Don’t be afraid of additional clicks if it makes the process/content more digestible
It is easier for users to click more and be presented with smaller chunks of the process as long as they are clear where they are in the process, how much is left and most important, what they need to do next. Users just want to know they are making progress towards their goal to stay engaged.
Don’t believe me? Recently the major banks had their online bill pay process tested. The one with the fewest number of clicks was rated the hardest and the one with the 2nd highest number of clicks/screens was rated the easiest. Why? Because users were given smaller amounts of information to deal with at a time, the information chunks contained only related decision points and the next step was very clear.
In fact on one website, a t-shirt manufacturer (who had the best intentions) tried to put all of the decision points on a single screen. The idea was to make it easier for users, but the result was users who were utterly confused as what to do next. The users kept expecting to be taken to another screen signifying progression in the process. They were unsure if another decision needed to be made or if they were done. It is that uncertainty, not knowing what to do next that is the UX killer.
To be clear, I am not suggesting you make small, short process 30 clicks, but I am saying that if the choice is between presenting the user with two unrelated decision points or two screens (and the extra click), create the additional screen. Your users will have a better experience.
When in doubt, test, test, test!
How do you know how many clicks to have? Testing, testing, testing. Conduct simple prototype testing based on your best estimate of how to chunk your process. If you see your users getting stuck on particular screens, try breaking it up and see if it goes faster. Just don’t be afraid of that extra screen, in most cases it will make the process easier for your users.
So Rest In Peace 3-click rule, may you (and Crystal Pepsi) never be heard from again.