The 3-click rule is a simple guideline in web design that suggests that users should be able to reach any page or vital information on a website within three clicks (or taps on a touchscreen). Some variations of this rule emphasize that the most critical content should be accessible within three clicks. Designers commonly use this rule to enhance website navigation and information retrieval. It's also applied in other scenarios, such as filling out forms or guiding users through a wizard.
In this article, our main focus will be on why it's not advisable to blindly apply the 3-click rule when designing website information architecture and navigation.
Problem with the 3-Click Rule
One of the key ideas stemming from the 3-click rule is that navigation menus should be user-friendly and avoid multiple layers of clicks to access information. While this sounds sensible, adhering strictly to this principle often forces designers to prioritize wide information architectures (IAs) over deep ones.
To prevent lengthy sequences of clicks, designers tend to create numerous specific top-level categories in their menus rather than opting for a more streamlined approach. However, both very broad and very deep IA structures come with their unique usability challenges. Broad IAs with numerous top-level categories can overwhelm users and occupy extensive UI space. On the other hand, deep structures, with fewer top-level categories but multiple tiers below, can lead to either a cumbersome menu navigation process (with hover-revealed menus and confusing sequential menus) or lengthy loading times for category landing pages on the way to lower-level content.
Intriguingly, this means that many designers face a dilemma between two UX myths, neither of which is backed by solid data: the idea of sticking to no more than 3 clicks or limiting main-navigation categories to no more than 7. These simple rules of thumb, while seemingly reasonable, often prove unhelpful because they lack strong research support and sometimes even lead to design trade-offs that result in equally poor user experiences.
3-Click Rule: Effective UX Strategies
Counting clicks isn't a perfect way to measure how easy a task is on a website. It doesn't consider the mental effort users put into understanding a long list of options, figuring out where they are on the site, and estimating how much more work they need to reach their goal. These cognitive factors are just as crucial as the number of clicks.
Here are some better practices for good website navigation:
Clear Menu Item Names: Ensure that the names of menu items provide a strong "information scent." In other words, they should be descriptive and indicative of the content or destination. Avoid using vague, unfamiliar, or branded terms that might confuse users.
Implement Wayfinding Elements: Include clear wayfinding tools such as breadcrumbs and local subnavigation. These aids show users their current location within the site's information architecture, helping them understand the context and navigate more effectively.
Opt for Mega Menus: On desktop websites, choose mega menus over multilevel hierarchical dropdown menus. Hierarchical dropdowns often lead to errors, require precise mouse movements, and display only one section of the site's information structure at a time. Mega menus, on the other hand, present several levels of the information hierarchy simultaneously. They allow users to compare multiple pathways visually, helping them decide which "neighborhood" to explore. Mega menus also support easy error correction if a user makes a mistake, preventing the frustration of needing to repeat a high interaction-cost process due to misclicks or menu closures.
Highlight Important Information: Identify the most crucial information-seeking tasks on your site and make sure they are easily accessible. You should provide links to these tasks on your homepage and other significant pages.
Create Clear Pathways: If your information-seeking tasks require multiple steps, consider creating clear landing pages or navigation hubs at key points during the process. These landing pages should contain groups of links, possibly with images or explanatory elements, to assist users, especially with unfamiliar terminology. These pages also serve as stopping points, making it easy for users to backtrack using the Back button. Furthermore, they should enable lateral movement, allowing users to explore sibling pages within the same category. Keep in mind that higher levels in your information hierarchy are more general, while deeper levels are more specific and may require additional information or clarification along the way.
By implementing these practices, you can enhance the user experience on your website and help users efficiently find the information they seek.
While it's essential to reduce user effort when accessing information or completing tasks, the 3-click rule lacks a solid foundation. The number of clicks isn't a universally applicable threshold for user frustration. Instead, emphasis should be placed on effective organization, providing clear navigation pathways, progressively detailed content deeper into the site structure, and ensuring users always have a clear understanding of their current location and how to reach their destination.