Jason R. Anderson

Software Engineer & UX Designer

The Three Click Myth

A graphic designer’s job is to convey a message to the viewer using interesting visual treatments of text, shapes, colors, and images. The difficulty in that premise is finding the balance between creating a design that is visually stimulating, while keeping the message clear.

Traditional print design has been around long enough to develop a very deep understanding of the rules that govern things like typography and color theory, however as print designers began making their way into web design in the early 2000’s, there weren’t as many applicable rules or methodologies for design on the web. Technical limitations and inherent differences in the platform made traditional approaches taken from print useless.

Designers found themselves responsible for, not only conveying the message, but also the user interface and the interactions between screens. In an effort to consolidate design lessons learned, well-meaning rules of thumb started popping up in web design blogs, books, and resources. Some of these rules of thumb were good advice (e.g. avoid mystery-meat navigation), and some sounded good at the time, but after some thorough research turned out to not be the case. The “Three Click Rule” is one of those rules of thumb that turned out to be a myth, and I think it’s important to bring up because it’s still making its way into interactive design decisions.

The Misguided Premise

The idea behind the “Three Click Rule” was an attempt to help designers focus on information hierarchy and taxonomy. If you group all of your content and build your menu UI in such a way that it take less than 3 mouse clicks to find what you’re looking for, then your information is likely well-organized. Unfortunately, too many people focused on the 3 click part of the solution and not enough on what was at the heart of the problem — organization of content. In the end, you find people in charge of a software project holding a dogmatic perspective on the 3 clicks and lose sight of whether the user experience actually gets better. In most cases, it doesn’t as designers and content developers feel the need to squeeze more information into a single screen to adhere to the “Three Click Rule.”

The Alternative

So, what should you be focusing on when organizing your content and creating the navigation UI in your app or web site? Here are some basic guidelines to follow to help keep focus on what matters.

Break up your web site or app into separate activity flows or calls to action. Are you providing a way for your user to change settings in your mobile app? Make sure the path to get there is obvious and the number of customization options isn’t overwhelming or confusing. If there are more than a few options, consider breaking them down into another level of hierarchy. Remember, it’s not the number of taps it takes to find the audio setting controls, it’s the ambient findability of those controls that will result in a good user experience.

Start to map out each of those flows, making note of how the user came into them as well as how you intend to bring them back out. Each flow should have an entry point and one or more exit points.

Group those flows by their task or relationship to the messages you’re trying to convey. This taxonomy will help you segregate the sections of your web site or app to form the primary navigation.

When it comes to creating your UI, try to avoid being too clever with the design. Just because so many apps use a tab bar along the bottom, or so many web sites use a primary navigation header along the top doesn’t make it boring…it makes it a tried, tested, and accepted basis for your software’s content. Stray from the path only when it makes sense for your app, and not because you’re bored with traditional navigation schemes.