Testing the Three-Click Rule

By April 22, 2020 Guides and Information

Last Updated on

Have you heard about the Three-Click Rule? Perhaps you may have heard of it but do not know exactly what it is. The three-click rule actually means that it should not take more than three clicks to access a piece of content. This is an important rule for web designing that has been around for quite some time. The Three-Click Rule actually makes sense. If the users can’t find the information that they want within three clicks, then most likely they will get frustrated and leave the site.

Most of us may have experienced disappointments after doing perpetual searching. We visit a site, then click through different pages, then after a while, we decided that we are ready to quit. Based on a study, a bewildered user suddenly gets frustrated and raise up her arms and proclaimed that it would be nice if she can find everything on a website by doing at least three clicks.

The Three-Click Rule can help in addressing this frustration. A lot have been written about the Three-Click Rule. In fact, one of the influential web designers, Jeffrey Zeldman, mentioned the Three-Click Rule in his famous book entitled “Taking Your Talent to the Web.” He revealed that this rule is actually based on how people use the internet. Additionally, this rule can help web designers in creating websites that have instinctive hierarchical structures.

The User Interface Engineering conducted their own research and discovered that these findings on clicking can actually help us in realizing that there are some problems in a site. For instance, in a study about e-commerce, we learned that users who made a lot of clicks or visited several pages will likely buy less. For more details on this, you can refer to the article, “Strategies for Categorizing Categories.”

What they discovered in this study is that those users who keep on clicking the “Back” button are the ones who failed. Hence, we can’t actually say that the number of clicks actually mattered. Perhaps there were other causes why they fail.

Because of the implementation of the Three-Click Rule, there were a lot of design suggestions that emerged. For instance, they must include global navigation on each page. At the same time, the navigation hierarchy must be simple yet extensive.

These recommendations may seem natural but they believe that the Three-Click Rule must be followed. Well, after knowing about this rule and applying it to some client projects, we were wondering if this rule is actually true.

Is It True That The Users Will Leave After Three Clicks?

If the Three-Click Rule is actually based on the user’s behaviour, then we can say that there is a connection between the user’s success in finding the information that they want and the number of pages that they have clicked through.

In order to verify if this kind of connection actually exists, they try to examine the data from the latest study of 44 users who attempt to accomplish 620 tasks. They take note of the number of clicks that they’ve made on each task. They also investigated if the user has succeeded or failed in finding the information that he needs. All in all, they were able to review over 8,000 clicks!

They found out that in attempting to accomplish their tasks, some users have to visit 25 pages or more before they finally completed their tasks. On the contrary, there are also others who only visited two or three pages before they finally stopped. If the Three-Click Rule evolved from data, then this can be evident in this extensive difference in the number of pages that these users visited.

As they analyze this data, the rule shows that there are actually users who leave after clicking the third page even before finding the information that they need. Those users who made more than 25 clicks were unsuccessful in completing their tasks.  Most users who have successfully completed their tasks were able to accomplish it in at least three clicks.

Why Do Users Continue to Click?

Unfortunately, based on their data, they could not find any scientific basis for the Three-Click Rule. Based on their analysis, they could not find any relationship between the number of clicks that the users made and the success of accomplishing their tasks. Based on their analysis, there was no evidence that users will quit after undergoing three clicks. When they made a comparison between the successful tasks and the unsuccessful ones, they did not find any difference at all when it comes to the dissemination of tasks. It is very rare that anyone would give up after doing three clicks.

Based on the Three-Click Rule, most users would quit after doing three clicks. However, based on the study of User Interface Engineering, these users will keep on going, some may even reach up to 25 clicks. Based on their data, the Three-Clicks Rule is simply a myth.

Clicks To Completion

Based on this chart, we should have noticed that most of the successful tasks will likely end in three clicks. However, this is not the case. For both successful and failed tasks, we will notice that it reaches 15 clicks before 80% of the tasks are completed. Furthermore, it shows that both successful and failed tasks have the same distribution. This means that the number of clicks is not the basis for predicting the success or failure of the task.

Since this task data cannot support the Three-Click Rule, then its better if we have to reassess the problem. Perhaps the task success and failure is not the right way to evaluate this rule? Maybe some people believe in this rule because it can be discouraging to continue clicking after the third page. Hence, it is much better if we view the problem from a different perspective.

Are The Users Satisfied?

If we examine the tasks that take more than three clicks to accomplish, can we see a reduction in the number of satisfied users? After accomplishing each of the 620 tasks, the users were asked if they were contented with the site for the task. These users provided different types of answers. There are some users who reveal that they feel satisfied while there are also others who confessed that they are entirely unsatisfied. Do these findings have any connection with the number of clicks?

The researchers try to analyze the satisfaction data, but unfortunately, they did not find any proof for the Three-Click Rule. If we examine the percentage of unsatisfied users, we can see that there is only a little difference between various lengths of the clickstreams, since the range is between 46% and 61%. This means that fewer clicks do not necessarily mean that the users are satisfied.

Unsatisfied Customers Based on Task Length

Users do not feel satisfied anymore whether they make shorter or longer clickstreams.  Hence, the satisfaction of users cannot be measured by the number of clicks that they’ve made.

Why Do Users Get Frustrated?

Users can actually get frustrated if it takes a longer time for them to find the things that they need. The best way that these users can feel satisfied is when the number of frustrating clicks can be minimized. Nevertheless, these complaints are not actually about the number of clicks. They are actually complaining about failing to find the right information. When these users can find what they want they most probably, they will stop complaining about the number of clicks.

This occurrence will happen quite often. What the users are complaining about are only the symptoms but not the actual problem itself. They want some explanations on why they are failing. And in this case, one of the things that come to their mind is that most probably they are clicking too much.

The Three-Click Rule Is Not Actually Bad

Come to think of it, the Three-Click Rule is not entirely bad after all. It was created with the users in their minds. The rule can actually help designers in putting more importance on the information that matters the most to the users. In this way, they can create better web sites. These are excellent qualities.

People should not be extremely cynical in this rule since it can provide great benefits to the designers. It can help them to focus more on users along with their needs. Unfortunately, the Three-Click Rule does not direct the actual problem. What is important to the users is not actually the number of clicks that they’ve made but in succeeding to find what they are actually searching for.

How Did The Three-Click Rule Originate?

It was Jeffrey Zeldman who made reference to the Three-Click Rule in his book “Taking Your Talent to the Web” which was published in 2001. In this book, he mentioned the popular concept of the three-click rule which was used by web designers during that time. However, in this book, there are no sufficient data that are provided that can support the affirmation of the three-click rule. It simply takes note of the logic that most people agree to this and it is based on the objective that users must be provided with satisfaction. If these users can’t find the things that they are looking in just three clicks, then they will ultimately move to another site.

There are some proofs through the years that these users are motivated by their desire to obtain great satisfaction. However, it is worthwhile to know that when the three-click rule first appeared, there was no evidence or studies to support it. But it simply relies on the belief that perhaps users might move to another site.

Can We Break The Three Click Rule?

Jakob Nielsen has created several valuable guidelines and analysis for the web industry. However, as the industry changes, these guidelines should change as well. However, users will always remember these slogans. Most probably, they will continue to repeat them through the years without knowing the latest trends or studies.

One of Nielsen’s famous guidelines which are most often repeated is that the information required by the user must be available within three clicks. Most web designers are aware of this rule and will usually mention them during design or architecture meetings.

Because of this rule, web designers end up designing a wide and flat site structure. These designers think that it can work just fine because the user can get the chance to go to any page on the site no matter what page they are currently on the site.

Unfortunately, this won’t work because users have to parse a lot of options instantly. As soon as the user finds a possible match, they will visit the page instantly. Then they will do the same thing over and over again. It would be great if designers can create four to six top-level options.

On the other hand, having very narrow and deep options on the site can be likely disappointing. This is because there is a lot of communication needed for each decision. Ultimately, you will end up having ten clicks before getting into the desired page. If only there is a way that this page can be accessed easily. Sometimes if you are working in large sites, finding the right balance can be hard.

Should Designers Follow This Rule?

It seems that the three-click rule is used by designers as an excuse for creating a dull content structure. As long as it only takes three clicks, then it should be good enough. This is how they would want you to believe.

Nielsen wants to point out that the number of clicks won’t matter. What matters the most is if these clicks are productive or not. Recently, he discussed the interaction elasticity, which also means that the interaction costs could increase when the usage will decrease.

The website of Harvard College Library is a good example of having a simple yet effective interface. It contains four main options that can instantly reduce the number of pages that you have to go through before finding what you want.

Every click that the user makes should get them close to their goal. Any click that separates the user from his intended goal should be avoided.


About Lydia

A keen money saver and online digital marketer. I love all things online from a good deal to the conversion rates of an email marketing campaign :).