January 12, 2012

Is the Three Clicks Rule dead?

The problem isn't "too many clicks" — it's "too many wrong clicks".

On the cartoon show The Jetsons, Jane Jetson is a full-time housewife (although the show was set in the future, it was written in the ’60s). She would push a button, and a robot vacuum cleaner would pop out to clean the rug or mechanical arms would place a fully cooked meal onto the table. That is until, in one episode, she gets “buttonitis” — stress from pushing too many buttons. Ridiculous — or is it?

Why does Amazon.com have “one-click” shopping? Because they know that every click needed is one more chance for a consumer not to make the purchase. I almost always use specialized apps on my smart phone instead of going to the full website on the browser. Why? Because it saves me a click or two. In fact, with my phone’s new notification feature, I can get the weather, sports scores and emails with one swipe. I can’t be bothered with an extra click or two!

Which brings us to the Three Clicks Rule, a longstanding and often unquestioned website design rule that says users become frustrated and often leave a site if they can’t find their content in three clicks. But now there are usability tests that show this isn’t true. In fact, there was little difference in user satisfaction or retention between three clicks and 12 clicks. So, does the number of clicks matter or not? When we delve deeper into the data, it becomes clear that it’s the quality of clicks that affects user satisfaction the most. The frustration comes from clicks that lead to wrong paths or dead ends. This often gets translated as “too many clicks” when, in reality, it’s “too many wrong clicks.”

As website designers and marketers, we drive consumers on a path to a specific action. Success comes when the path is short, clearly defined and free from obstacles. That’s why we rarely direct consumers to a website’s homepage anymore. There are usually too many choices, too many opportunities for confusion and too many potentially wrong paths. More often, we recommend creating landing pages, microsites or mobile apps for each marketing campaign. Unique URLs enable us to track the success and ROI of the individual campaigns. And users instantly get exactly what they are looking for, which leads to higher user satisfaction and extraordinary success rates.

Like most so-called “laws” of marketing and design, the Three Clicks Rule just doesn’t work, yet is invaluable in its intent. Its worth lives on and will only become more important in this smart phone and tablet era, where instant online gratification is demanded. Besides, who needs a bad case of “buttonitis?”

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