Breaking the Click Count Illusion

In the realm of design, the 3-click rule has been a long-standing, unofficial, and hard-to-kill heuristic, suggesting that users should reach their desired content within three clicks (or taps). The rule sometimes expands its reach beyond just navigation but also aims to reduce task time.

Is it wrong? Well, yes and no. Limiting the interaction cost to its absolute minimum is not always the full picture. Simply counting clicks and putting a hard cap on clicks as a basis isn't either.

Wait, What's the 3-Click Rule?: Traditionally, the 3-click rule aimed to minimize user frustration by reducing the number of actions needed to access a page. Counting clicks is an easily measurable metric, and thus the rule, consciously applied or not, was used for almost everything—from navigation to task completion, like wizards or forms, etc. How many times have we heard or maybe even uttered the justification ourselves, "...that way we'll save a click," to add an additional button on an already overcrowded UI?

We'll save a click!

A Broader Interpretation: Rather than strict adherence to a predefined number of clicks, consider the broader implications of the 3-click rule. If reducing clicks improves metrics such as task time, user confidence, and satisfaction, it's worth exploring. However, the emphasis should be on achieving goals efficiently and with as little friction as possible. If more clicks, however, help users segment the content and make better decisions, possibly even fewer mistakes because of it, then we're fine.

Because not every click is equal: Some give instantaneous feedback (like a menu), some result in loading times. Some have more weight (delete), and others might not be task-critical (show more in an accordion).

Tactics for Improved Usability (no surprise here):

  1. Usability Tests: Leverage methods like Tree testing and Card sorting to gain valuable insights into how users perceive and categorize your content.

  2. Gather Customer Feedback: Utilize surveys and interviews to collect feedback, allowing you to refine the user experience based on real user perspectives.

  3. Optimize Navigation Menus: Move beyond hierarchical menus and explore alternatives like mega menus for a more user-friendly and efficient navigation experience (yes, that includes you, banks and insurance companies!). Because another myth, the max 7 links per page, needs to die as well.

  4. Utilize Sequential Positioning Effect: Leverage human psychology by strategically placing essential elements at the beginning and end of pages to enhance memorability and user engagement.

So while the 3-click rule served as a simple heuristic in the past, its relevance in contemporary web design is outdated. Embracing a holistic approach that prioritizes user understanding, efficient task completion, and thoughtful design choices can lead to a more seamless and satisfying user journey.

Lobsang Jordhen, UX / UI Designer & Frontend Developer, Switzerland
Made with ❤️ and NextJS, Tailwind, DatoCMS, Figma.