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What's the 3-click website navigation rule and why is it not true?

What's the 3-click website navigation rule and why is it not true? Blog Feature

Joel Waggener

UX Designer, 15+ Years of Print and Web Design Expertise

November 25th, 2019 min read

Have you ever had an issue and needed to call a customer service number? You’re usually prompted to select a number from a nice, recorded voice. Once you select a number and wait for a little while, you finally get to talk to a person. 

Once you explain your situation to this person, you usually find out they are not the person you ultimately need to talk to. So, they transfer to another who may or may not be able to help you.

Hopefully at some point, you have your issue resolved, but if you get too frustrated, what happens? 

You hang up.

Now pretend that number is a website. You look in the navigation, but don’t find what you need. You click through on a random page that seems like it may be related, then find yourself on another, then another, all without answers. .

Like the customer service line, The website is failing you in fundamental ways. 

Instead of trying to find what seems unfindable, a visitor will likely dip from the website before finding what they need.

This is where the three-click rule comes into play.

What is the three-click rule?

If you deal with websites in any capacity, you’ve likely heard of this before. 

The three-click rule is basically an unofficial rule that a user is only willing to click three times before abandoning a website if they don’t see the item they are after.

For designers and strategists, this is often applies to the website navigation and information seeking tasks.

So, where did this rule come from?

In 2001, Jeffrey Zeldman wrote about it in his book Taking Your Talent to the Web.

“It’s widely agreed, even by people who are not idiots, that web users are driven by a desire for fast gratification. If they can’t find what they’re looking for within three clicks, they might move on to somebody else’s site.”

This was written in 2001, but it became entrenched in the general website ethos. Many people have assumed since then that in order to have a successful website, they must follow this rule.

The problem is, the rule was based on an opinion, not hard data from any published studies. It was more of “this might happen” kind of thing. 

But should designers and strategists be following this unofficial rule? And should we really be counting clicks? 

If you look at every study done on this since it entered the website world vernacular — the answer is no.

While it was meant to be helpful and give website creators guidance on creating easy-to-navigate websites that provide instant gratification, the rule is flawed because it is too broad and general. 

Counting clicks is not a good barometer to measure a full user experience. There are too many other aspects of a design that contribute to usability—navigation, page flow, videos, FAQs, and colors. These are just the tip of the iceberg of what influences an overall experience.

In reality, website users can get confused, make mistakes, and misunderstand even the clearest website. 

Counting the number of steps in a user journey misses out on what users actually do, and the opportunity to give them a less frustrating experience. 

There are more studies against the three-click rule than for it 

There’s not one study that backs the whole concept of the three-click rule. However, there are studies that dispute it.

Uie study

The Uie study, for example, looked at data from 44 users attempting 620 tasks. It found that there was no correlation between the number of times users clicked and their success in finding the content they sought:

“Our analysis showed that there wasn’t any more likelihood of a user quitting after three clicks than after 12 clicks. When we compared the successful tasks to the unsuccessful ones, we found no differences in the distributions of tasks lengths. Hardly anybody gave up after three clicks.”...”users often kept going, some as many as 25 clicks.”

Prioritizing Usability

This usability test showed that:

“Users’ ability to find products on an e-commerce site increased by 600 percent after the design was changed so that products were four clicks from the homepage instead of three”

Users would much rather have several links telling them where to go in each step than think through just two or three lists of links and hope they can pick out the right link to click.

So, obviously this rule is not written in stone. The three-click rule, which has been part of the vernacular for so long however, has had some consequences for website creators.

How the three-click rule has affected design and strategy

One of the design assertions of the three-click rule is that navigation menus should not make users click through multiple levels in order to find the information they want.  

This idea is reasonable to implement, but using it as a hardened rule requires designers to use broad information architectures (IA) over deep IAs.

Trying to avoid an overwhelming number of clicks, designers end up using many specific top-level categories in their menus, instead of fewer and less overwhelming top-level choices. 

These IA structures both have their own usability problems. 

Broad IAs, like Amazon’s, with a large number of categories at the top-level require a lot of UI space and are more complicated for users to use. 

Amazon-navigation

Deep IAs with a few top-level categories and a large number of levels (like CardinalHealth’s) require either a lot of menu diving creating a frustrating hover-revealed menus or confusing sequential menus.

CardinalHealth-Navigation

Both these options mean that designers have to choose between two UX myths: either no more than three clicks or no more than seven main-navigation categories.  

This is why broad rules like this aren’t helpful — they aren’t backed up by research and they conflict, so they can steer designers into making equally poor user experiences.

Ultimately, website navigation should be tackled on a case by case basis. No one set rule can solve for every website navigation.

Focus on the fundamentals

So, clearly counting clicks is not an effective way to measure a visitor experience (the most important aspect of your website). 

Instead, you should focus on the fundamentals:

  1. Intuitive navigation
    Make sure menu items have names with strong “information scent” and avoid vague terms. In other words, links and category descriptions should explicitly describe what users will find at the destination. No vagueness.
  2. Design consistency
    This is straightforward. The more consistent a user experience is, the easier it is for a user to get around a website. Users should not have to wonder if different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing.  
  3. Wayfinding
    Make sure no matter where a user is on the website, they know where they are, they can get back to where they were or easily find where to go next. 

As our developer extraordinaire Morgan VanDerLeest puts it:

“As long as you’re giving meaningful feedback for every interaction, number of clicks doesn’t matter. For example, if we can cut down the amount of time it takes for a page to load, or add an animation that feels congruent with the action a user is taking, then it doesn’t matter. 

Transparency between intent and result is probably more important than limiting the number of actions.”

There are some ways to do both:

  • Having an efficient and pleasant search experience can reduce clicks a lot (but is harder to do)
  • Well-thought-out next steps on each page (relevant calls-to-action, or intelligently related articles/pages)
  • Personalization for a more curated, relevant overall site experience. This can be achieved with purely additive technology, like thoughtful pop ups or dedicated sections

The three-click rule is dead

Three is not a magical number. It’s an arbitrary one that does not align with visitors getting frustrated. Rather than focus on clicks, we should be focusing on a clear navigation structure that always lets visitors know where they currently are and where they need to go and overall website experience. Simple as that.

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