Redefining Hick’s Law

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Hick’s Law1 has always been a popular reference point for designers. You’ll find it cited in the endless lists of basic laws and principles2 that all designers should be familiar with. Given our assumed comfort level with this design cornerstone, I am surprised to see so many people getting it wrong.

What we think we understand about Hick’s Law as it pertains to Web design is oversimplified and incomplete. We need to more deeply investigate what Hick’s Law can do for Web design. In the end, we will see why this design principle is undervalued, and we will see how we have been designing incorrectly for the user’s decision-making process. In order to get there, we need to look at our current approach to Hick’s Law and why it’s wrong.

Choices3
A mess of different size labels for clothing hooks. (Image: außerirdische sind gesund4)

An Incomplete Definition

As it stands today, most discussions of Hick’s Law focus on a narrow portion of Web design. Traditionally, the law is used to encourage designers to limit options in navigation, lists and interactive options. Whether it’s used against drop-down and fly-out menus with too many options or pages with too many links, Hick’s Law has primarily been a counterweight to sprawl5.

Overstock navigation6
Don’t do this.

While the idea does have merit (massive menus really are a bad idea), it is incomplete. Why do we restrict Hick’s Law to navigation? Hyperlinks are the driving force of the Internet; they take us from one page to another and drive the action on the page. So, applying Hick’s Law should begin there. Limiting the number of links and buttons in front of users should simplify their decision-making process, enabling them to move about the Web with minimal stress and delay. But is this the end all and be all of Hick’s Law?

A Better Perspective

If we stopped here in our study of Hick’s Law, we would miss out on a lot of value. Why do we focus so much on links and clicks? While these factors do drive the user experience, they aren’t the only factors that users take into account when navigating a design. We have to remember that Hick’s Law did not come about with the invention of the Internet. Hick’s research simply shed light on how a website’s options affect the speed and ease of the user’s decision making. This makes for a pretty broad scope, because we aren’t measuring physical responses or the role that technology plays, but rather the mental processes that lead to making a decision.

So, let’s step back and consider the thought process that users go through and how many levels of decision-making a Web design can consist of. For example, instead of just regarding each link in a navigation menu, sign-up form or toolbar as its own option, we should consider the process of interacting with the navigation a decision of its own. For that matter, any given design contains a whole array of top-level “options” that demand decisions of the user.

In choosing whether to read an article, navigate to a new page, fill out a log-in form or perform a search, the user has to mentally process several options before making even a single click. Are they interested in the content on this page? They might decide to skim the headlines to see what stands out to them. Perhaps they are shopping for something. Before even hitting the “Add to cart” button, they have to choose between making the purchase, looking at product details and reviews, and shopping around for something else.

TypeKit7
When browsing fonts on Typekit8, the user has many more decisions to make than simply picking a font.

With all of these options available, it would seem that crunching the numbers and determining how many choices are possible would paralyze any user into indecision and make any website unusable. Clearly, this isn’t the case. So, what is it about a good design that enables users to decide and act, without being overwhelmed by too many choices? Better yet, can we measure and reproduce these factors in our design work every day?

Reapplying Hick’s Law

In order to properly apply Hick’s Law to Web design, we must approach a design the way our users do: in phases.

The first phase occurs before the website even launches. While we would never want to design based on an assumption of what our user base is looking for, visitor will rarely happen upon your website without some sort of preconception of what they are going to see. Barring the occasional hijack9, most first-time visitors enter a website by clicking a link that includes a description, title or search result that hints at the content they will see. Returning visitors probably have an even better idea of what they will be running into. It is rare that a user enters a website with no clue of what it is about.

This preconception among users about content and experience is a great reason to follow a content-first design approach10. Of course, this approach also happens to be entirely justified. In an age of search-engine placement and social advertising, many users are landing on content-heavy pages, not just home pages driven by calls to action. So, the first decision point is about content consumption. The human mind has trouble choosing between several options unless one clearly stands out11 as the best. When you water down a design with widgets and secondary content, you reduce the value of the primary content and force a harder decision on the user. The process of eliminating distracting options has to start here and should be carried on throughout the design process. The more choices we eliminate, the more enjoyable the experience will be.

Looking past the primary content, what happens when content comes in large data sets, such as a list of recent posts, product suggestions or thumbnails? It’s here that the designer can really prove their worth. We have all seen designs that lack structure, spacing and consistency. The content gets lost, or the user gives up entirely when they aren’t given the tools with which to make confident decisions. Building a great experience has a lot to do with how we empower the user’s decision-making process through these practices. When we apply our skill sets to drive users to a particular action on a page, we are counteracting the lag or complete mental shutdown12 that is caused by a complicated decision-making process.

Is minimalism your thing? Then a splash of color or carefully arranged negative space goes a long way to breaking down the top-level decisions that users have to make. If you find yourself painting or spacing out elements haphazardly on the page, then it’s time to reconsider the number of options on the page and choose the ones that are most important.

Information Architects13
The less color we use, the more powerful it becomes.

When dealing with rich designs and content-heavy websites, patterns are your best friend. When users are in scanning mode, their eyes will key in on consistency, so your designs should be visually consistent in the right way. Are your headings different enough from your titles to be instantly recognizable as secondary or tertiary content? Always fall back on the principles of art and look at how the design uses line, shape, color and spacing. Variations in these things draw the user’s attention, while consistency breeds familiarity and easier decision-making. Pushing Hick’s Law to the core of this thought process forces us to think twice about our reasons for visually emphasizing certain elements.

When we design in patterns, we instill assumptions and behavioral patterns in our users as well. The Web has some global design patterns that help users make decisions. When text is blue and underlined, users understand they can click on it and get sent to a related resource. Similar patterns can exist within the confines of a single design. If we place a texture behind a headline, the user will associate the two things; the next time the user sees the texture, they will expect to see an element in front of it that carries the same weight or meaning as the headline they first saw. Distributing these patterns throughout a design helps users make choices based on previous experience.

What We Do With Words

Perhaps you haven’t heard the news: people don’t really read websites14. Users don’t read content until they are motivated and enabled to do so. So, we need to take titles seriously and use imagery in the right way. Graphics and images are a huge draw, especially on pages loaded with text. When used correctly, they can make an otherwise heavy page easier to decipher, thus connecting users to the content they care about more quickly.

Pinterest15
Thanks to design patterns and support of image thumbnails, Pinterest16 can load a lot of content.

Pinterest Without Images17
Take away the images, and the design suddenly becomes unusable. This highlights the importance of using images properly.

Designing With Hick’s

The only way to get any real value out of Hick’s Law is to marry it with the design principles that we know and love. I challenge you to incorporate Hick’s Law into the highest levels of your design process. When you set up wireframes, look past the trees of “Link 1, Link 2, Link 3…” and see the forest of decisions that you are putting in front of users. (Cutting this forest down is totally fine.)

Prototyping stuff out? Don’t just worry about how many times to use a call-to-action style. When you group elements or space them out or change the background color or apply a texture, you are setting off a section of the design and potentially laying another choice on users. This is why design is not just about decorating the page or making a button stand out. We must respect the power of design to draw attention and, thus, strictly limit the number of decisions that we burden users with.

The Web is a wonderful place to specialize, and a lot of websites out there do a fine job of delivering a very limited scope of options to users in fine style. This level of focus is made possible by zeroing in on a core set of behaviors that are easily targeted by a consistent set of design patterns. This often has the desirable side effect of being great for mobile-first18 responsive design19.

Quipol20
Quipol21 focuses on doing one thing really well, which limits decision overload for users.

Where’s My Magic Number?

So, how many choices can we expect users to be able to manage before slowing down? The answer will always be relatively few. Some of the best designed and most popular websites limit options to just a few. On Google, we can log in, search or try our luck. On the Quipol page above, we can vote, log in or sign up, learn about this new service, or see more polls. The options on Twitter’s home page have lowered over time, being whittled down to simple sign-up and log-in forms.

Old Twitter22
Not long ago, Twitter23 presented a lot of choices on the home page.

New Twitter24
The new design sharply reduces these decision points and exhibits greater focus.

This is a huge design challenge that demands a lot of thought, testing and revision. The process of minimizing options for users without impairing functionality is not an exact science and no easy task. It requires studying our users’ behavior patterns and making tough decisions about what to do about such things as advertising, business-derived feature creep and actions such as logging in and signing up (which empower users but distract from the content). As we can see with Twitter, this is an evolving art form. As Twitter continues to grow in popularity, more and more users are landing on its home page already knowing what goes on there. This empowers Twitter’s design team to lower the noise that results from having to educate new users on the service.

Foursquare Explore25
The “Explore” feature on Foursquare26 packs limitless possibility into a simple set of options.

Foursquare has also done a great job of providing a powerful tool without overwhelming users with choice. In less capable hands, Foursquare’s “Explore” feature27 could easily host dozens of filters, restrictions and settings to tinker with. Instead, the visitor is encouraged to use the service simply by typing what they want in the input field and hitting the only button on the screen. This simplicity is made possible by a few things. First and foremost, the core premise of the service is all about the here and now. Foursquare knows its users are interested in what’s right around them, because the service has always been about sharing and exploring your immediate surroundings; so, defaulting the search area to the user’s current location is a safe bet. Secondly, over a billion data points yield a lot of power. With such a large a set of information, Foursquare can do a lot behind the scenes to make educated guesses about what its users are really interested in.

Making Sense Of It All

So, how does rethinking Hick’s Law outside of its traditional design context make us better designers? It’s all about the process. It irks me when a client asks me to make something pretty or to put a “magic touch” on some content. Design has always been about so much more than that, and a huge part of it is making the experience effortless for users.

As we’ve seen in the examples of well-executed design above, websites take different routes and devise different solutions, but the goals are the same. When we apply principles such as Hick’s Law beyond the narrow scope of navigation sets, we start to see the power of eliminating distractions for users. Slimming websites down to one or two clear options makes for a beautiful experience and sets a lofty goal for the designer.

We can’t always eliminate all confusion for our busy, distracted users, but we can ease their pain by limiting the options that they have to mentally process. When we view chunks of content as decision-making points, it becomes clear just how much we ask of visitors. Each option is an opportunity to evaluate its importance in the design. Designers who force users to decide between only meaningful and clear options are the ones who deliver an effortless user experience. And when the experience is effortless, everyone wins.

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Jason Gross is a freelance web designer focused on creating clean and user friendly websites. Jason currently lives in Indiana and can be found on Twitter as @JasonAGross or on the web at his personal blog and portfolio.

  1. 1

    I’ve always considered this described phenomenon with a fair amount of “tolerance for ambiguity” spawned by the realization that “choice” is a multi-factorial endeavor with many, many (did I say many) factors. Some, if not a lot, of which are unknown, unrecognized and/or just “plain magic.” “Magic numbers” cannot be given, due to that fact; and, it seems to me that, when applied to another such multi-factorial endeavor – design, a more simple and understandable concept would just be the law of parsimony- “keep it simple stupid!”

    Let me explain: I visit a site which I’ve been told contains offroad maps that I possibly want to download. Across the top bar is a navigation for “Download:” and twelve state’s names (the ones for which they have maps). “Twelve is too many choices” one might correctly say, “lets give them: west, central and east” followed by another sub-menu based upon their fist choice. “Aaagh,” I would say. “Why the extra click, I can almost instantaneously recognize a state name that I’m interested in. Why make this more complicated than it is?” I’ve seen sites where the excessive “levels” seemed like they were a mere “monetizing” effort to obtain clicks on the most simple of choices.

    We’re all human and can only do what humans do – the best we can, and very few can do “remote sensing” of what anothers abilities are. If “it seems too many” to you, it probably is. If they “don’t fit” using good font-size and white space then they need another level.

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    • 2

      I think the error in logic is that a list of 12 states represents 12 options, but not 12 decisions.

      “Selecting which state” is a single decision, and breaking them out into regions actually creates a second decision, putting more work on the user.

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      • 3

        Exactly Chris. Also in this case the name of states are instantly recognizable and would allow for less need to decipher the content, in turn speeding up the decision making. Also west, central and east may slow a user down because it is more abstract and someone may not be sure which section a state is in. Especially for a Canadian like me, eh?

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  2. 4

    A lovely blog site I enjoyed visiting :)

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  3. 5

    I can’t understand why Pinterest is so popular. It presents so many elements at once (creating a lot of visual noise) that it takes a while to get any meaningful information. It lacks rithm. I don’t get it.

    I completely agree with this article. A proper information hierarchy, and limiting the decisions in small chunks (I like the number 5 as a reference) will work wonders.

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    • 6

      i definitely agree with your comment on Pinterest. way too busy for me. too much effort involved to create pinups and browse others pinups. i just don’t see a use for it. it’s just one more social layer to keep track of, on top of so many other web applications that are already out there. to each his own, but i personally don’t have any need for the service.

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      • 7

        I agree with what you two are saying, but I think there is a place for Pinterest. Personally, it is a bit of a time waster, but at the same time I use it as a tool for inspiration and to keep track of the things I come across on the internet that I would like to use later. Instead of having random screenshots fill my desktop and then get put into a folder somewhere, Pinterest has allowed me to stay more organized. I’m sure there are other things I could use too, but this has been working thus far.

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  4. 8

    Web and experience designers should minimize the options displayed by default to the most essential decisions the user needs to make. Rely on proximity, contrast and size to let the user know what is most important.

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  5. 9

    This an excellent verbalization of actions we tend to make everyday without thinking about it. I found this particularly useful with respect to trying to articulate these points in client meetings. Great work!

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  6. 10

    Nice article. One tip: next time don’t assume all your readers know what Hick’s Law exactly entails, and start with a short introduction about it.

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    • 11

      I don’t know about this… I didn’t know anything about Hick’s law and this article prompted me to look it up… and I’m glad I did… otherwise my knowledge of it would only have extended to a couple of lines in the article.

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    • 12

      I agree. I wasn’t sure what it was. I ended up understanding it by the end of the article, but a small introduction would have been nice. I’m a web designer, so it made me feel a little stupid not knowing what it was. I just had never heard the reference before.

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  7. 13

    Overall I like this article. My only comment is on the recent use of “lack of” color. I guess I first really noticed this with the update to Google Docs and then Gmail. To me, the toolbar buttons being devoid of color make it more difficult to finding things. Granted, there are only a few buttons and you can figure them out relatively easily – but to the point of this article, why should I have to expend any noticeable amount of effort to say “oh yeah, that IS a garbage can – so that’s how I delete something.” Maybe they just need better icons at Google.

    I know it’s “all sleek” and everything, but it’s not inviting and I’m not convinced it’s a “welcoming” approach – especially to new visitors.

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    • 14

      I have also been wondering about this lately since the trend towards symbols over text description for actions has become so prevalent. Every new app offers a new set of symbols to learn the function of. In the case of the stacked ‘hamburger’ menu icon it’s become the standard for this type of function but a year or two ago when it first appeared I remember reading a lot of discussion about how appropriate it was as a symbol for revealing menu options. Does anyone know of any studies on the effectiveness of symbols vs. text for interaction?

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  8. 15

    You know what would have been really handy in this article? Actually opening with “Hick’s Law” before you started working on tangents and discussing what it means.

    Instead, in fittingly ironic style, you provided a link to a Wikipedia article and a another article which included not only Hick’s Law but another 9 laws to choose from.

    “…the time it takes for a person to make a decision as a result of the possible choices he or she has.”

    Well, in the first 4 lines of your article you provided 11 choices, all of them offsite. Smart move…

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  9. 16

    Tim from IntuitionHQ

    February 23, 2012 5:59 pm

    An interesting article about Hick’s Law. I didn’t know that much about Hick’s Law so I had to look it up to get a better understanding. But how you described the typical actions were very easy and understanding. And limiting the number of links and buttons in front of users will simplify their decision-making process and should enabling them to move about the Web with minimal stress and delay. So thanks, great article.

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  10. 17

    Similar to the “7+-2 rule”, Hick’s Law is often misunderstood. I think a core effect of Hick’s Law is being missed, the law actually states that decisions of equal validity are not linear in evaluation time because we are able to process things in groups, hierarchically, and is therefor FASTER, at a logarithmic scale. The issue is making each choice of equal validity and clarity. The classic example is an alphabetical list can quickly be searched because the user simply divides and conquers by the letters in the word they are looking for. This is actually way faster than creating sub-groups and having trees to navigate through. So why don’t we just list out every option in a site?

    “The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction” by Card, Moran and Newell is a great resource for understanding all of this cognition stuff, and has outlined what I think Mr. Gross is trying to get at, The Uncertainty Principle: decision time INCREASES with uncertainty about the judgement or decision to be made. You will often hear about “satisficing” in our field, where people will choose the first option that is “close enough” instead of evaluating the full list for the “best” option.

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  11. 20

    As usual, there are exceptions.
    In some situations, applying these principles might decrease the effectiveness of a navigation. Once again, you have to know your content and your visitors.

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  12. 21

    It’s extremely dangerous to walk around with a preset mentality from the offset that a design must adhere to certain rules or principles.

    Design rules and principles are guidelines and they are not always appropriate. It would be categorically wrong to apply Hicks Law to a website such as Pinterest.

    What design rules you follow, what methodology you adhere to, should come about as the result of research, primarily user research, which you have conducted before you even picked up a pen.

    What I find troubling though is that so many web designers simply skip the research stage of the design process, and jump straight in assuming they know what the best solution is, often thinking they must adhere to a certain colour scheme of layout simply because they once read a design rule which told them to.

    Do your research, extensively, before undertaking any project. Then, what design rules and methodologies you follow should come through from this. Then you will know whether you should or should not be thinking about Hicks Law when you pick up that pencil.

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    • 22

      Not every project or designer has the budget to conduct “extensive research”. Hick’s Law is one of a set of general principles that describe broadly the psychology of human decision making and reasoning. It’s not project specific, and I think it’s a net positive if designers are using research-based principles like this when they are thinking about interaction design.

      I do agree that many designers do make the mistake of taking things like “never have more than 7 items in a menu” as gospel, but this is because they haven’t actually taken the time to study and understand Hick’s Law or other behavioral principles, so they see it as an absolute rule rather than a general estimate of human behavior.

      Having said that, Hick’s Law is going to apply no matter what your user research says. It’s just a mathematical quantifier of basic human decision-making behavior.

      I suspect that what you’re really railing against is the culture of designers who learned their trade from blog posts instead of actual interaction theory / research. But then again, this is Smashing Mag, what did you expect?

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      • 23

        That’s a bit like saying not all car manufacturers have the budget to conduct extensive safety testing…a silly analogy but you get the point. Research is an integral part, or should be, of any project. I suppose you’d make exceptions for personal projects, or small projects for friends/family, but anything proper should be conducted in a proper manner.

        If you don’t research, then you have no justification for anything you’re doing. You are essentially diving your hand randomly into a haystack and hoping that you find the needle. I’m not saying you should spend weeks researching for a small project, but research should always be a part of the equation, proportional to the scope of the project.

        Whether you use or follow a particular set of principles or guidelines is down to you as a designer and what you feel is most appropriate for the project – something you gauge as a result of your research.

        The very fact that one guideline can quite openly contradict another goes to show that there is obviously going to be a choice made at some point in the process as to which ones you follow and which ones you do not.

        If you cannot tell me why you are using Hicks Law, then I am not convinced you should be. Some design is intuition – but not this.

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        • 24

          > If you don’t research, then you have no justification for anything you’re doing.

          I guess what I’m saying is that there is a body of general research which establishes a set of behavioral principles that we can all draw meaningful guidance from, with Hick’s Law being one example. I don’t have to undertake this research myself again and again for every project because a consensus has been established.

          Although this general behavioral information may affect each project in different ways, it applies widely enough that it is always useful to keep in mind.

          My feeling is that this is the different between a principle (Hick’s Law) and a guideline (never use more than 7 items in any menu). A principle should be understood and applied to each situation using best judgement, a guideline is a shortcut that you rightly point out is dangerous to be taken as gospel, always.

          1
    • 25

      I agree, research comes first.
      There are many sites where browsing is a main task and design should provide the user with as many navigation choices as possible to fit on a page/screen (or even more with endless scrolling function). This is a scenario where maximizing a number of choices eases making a decision.
      Think about Pinterest, 500px, flickr and other gallery type sites.
      There is a different scenario when the user is on a article/photo page. Now we are talking about limited number of choices via CTAs and narrative copy.

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  13. 26

    Great article. The trouble is, I actually find Smashing Mag a hugely distracting web site… there are just so many great things to read ( and reminders of this on the way down an article ) that I often can’t get passed half way down an article without clicking on another link that seems EVEN more interesting than what I am currently reading. I open inline-links into new tabs for later viewing… by the time I finish an article I have 10 tabs open and feel overloaded with information. I also realise I am not actually doing any work and need to get on with my day.

    The modern dilemmas of the modern web designer continue.

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  14. 27

    Great article!! Helped me to gain a new vision to scan and understand design. With reference to all this and examples (specially Twitter design), I think its hard for a designer to work for a emerging company than working for established brand, where he could find more challenges to make his design actually work & server the purpose. Thanks!! :-)

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  15. 28

    Nice explanation of Hick’s Law.Its really nice informative article.

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  16. 29

    “… The more choices we eliminate, the more enjoyable the experience will be…”

    Well, only as long as you do not the eliminate the choice a user is looking for. Twitter is an excellent example: The search field got removed, which makes the page useless for me, as I am not interested in the two choices left.

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  17. 30

    Smashing Mag, great article, but c’mon guys — why don’t you give a BRIEF rundown of what Hick’s Law is, like in 1 sentence, before referring to it 40 times. Most designers are familiar with the concept, but might not know explicitly what it is. Even if you expect most of your readers to be familiar with it, this is intro to journalism type stuff.

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  18. 31

    Due the fact that people don’t read websites, I go pretty fast through the entire article and I don’t know what’s hickers law already.

    Ironic. :p

    0
  19. 32

    Good job putting this article together and providing links. Kudos for that… but the one law everyone is forgetting to mention is K.I.S.S …….

    0

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