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Testing the Three-Click Rule

by Joshua Porter
on April 16, 2003

In a recent client meeting, a high-ranking executive told us that every piece
of content should take no more than three clicks to access. We knew exactly
what he was talking about: we’ve heard the Three-Click Rule many times before.
This unquestioned rule of web design has been around nearly as long as the
web itself.

On the surface, the Three-Click Rule makes sense. If users can’t find what
they’re looking for within three clicks, they’re likely to get frustrated and
leave the site.

Many of us have the frustration of endless searching ourselves. We go to a
site, click through various pages of content, and end up ready to quit. In
one of our studies, a perplexed user threw up her arms and pronounced, “I should
be able to find everything on a site in just three-clicks!” The Three-Click
Rule directly addresses this frustration, acknowledging a user’s desire for
fast gratification and the threat that a competitor’s content is only a click

Many have written about the Three-Click Rule. For instance, Jeffrey Zeldman,
the influential web designer, wrote about the Three-Click Rule in his popular
book, Taking Your Talent to the Web. He writes that the Three-Click Rule is “based
on the way people use the Web” and “the rule can help you create sites with
intuitive, logical hierarchical structures”.

In our own research, we’ve seen evidence that data about clicking helps us
recognize problems on a site. For example, in one e-commerce study, we found
that the more pages users visited (more clicks), the less they bought. (See
the article, Strategies for Categorizing
). What we noticed in that study, however, was that users who
were clicking the “Back” button multiple times were the ones who were failing.
So we weren’t sure whether the number of clicks mattered, or if it was something
else that caused them to fail.

Applying the Three-Click Rule leads to a number of design suggestions, such
as putting global navigation on every page and making a navigation hierarchy
shallow and wide. While these suggestions seem a natural extension of the Three-Click
Rule, they assume the rule is worth following. After hearing about the rule
for many years and having it as a requirement in some client projects, we decided
to find out if the rule was true.

Do Users Really Leave After Three Clicks?

If the origins of the Three-Click Rule come from actual user behavior, then
we should see a relationship between a user’s success at finding the content
they’re seeking and the number of pages they visit.

To see if we could find this kind of relationship, we looked at data from
a recent study of 44 users attempting 620 tasks. We counted the clicks of every
task, whether the user succeeded or failed at finding their desired content.
We analyzed more than 8,000 clicks!

In trying to complete the tasks, some users visited as many as 25 pages before
they ended their task and others only visited two or three pages before stopping.
If the Three-Click Rule came from data, we would certainly see it with this
wide variation in the number of pages they visited.

As we study our data, the rule tells us we should see users dropping off after
hitting the third page, leaving before they have a chance to succeed. Those
tasks that took as many as 25 clicks would be unsuccessful, with the majority
of successful tasks falling somewhere close to three clicks in length.

Users Kept Clicking

If there is a scientific basis to the Three-Click Rule, we couldn’t find it
in our data. Our analysis left us without any 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.

Graph Entitled Clicks To Completion

According to the Three-Click Rule, most people give up after
three clicks. However, in our study, users often kept going, some as many as
25 clicks. According to our data, the Three-Clicks Rule is just a myth.

In this chart, we should’ve seen the majority of successful clickstreams ending
around three clicks. However, for both successful and unsuccessful clickstreams,
we see that it isn’t until 15 clicks that we see 80% of our tasks completed.
Successful clickstreams have the same distribution as unsuccessful clickstreams
— the number of clicks doesn’t predict task success or failure.

The failure to find task data to support the Three-Click Rule made us rethink
the problem. Could task success and failure be the wrong way to look at it?
Maybe everyone believes in the rule because it’s frustrating to keep clicking
beyond the third page? We decided to look at the problem from a different angle.

What about Satisfied Users?

If we looked at the tasks that were dramatically longer than three clicks,
do we see a drop in the satisfaction of the users? At the end of each of the
620 tasks, we had asked users to rate how satisfied they were with the site
for that task. Again, there was a wide variety of answers — sometimes users
were very satisfied, other times they were completely unsatisfied. Did these
ratings correlate with the number of clicks?

After analyzing the satisfaction data, we still found no evidence for the
Three-Click Rule. When we looked at the percentage of users who were unsatisfied,
our data showed there was little variation (between 46% and 61%) between different
lengths of clickstreams. Fewer clicks do not make more satisfied users.

Graph Entitled Disatisfaction By Task Length

Users weren’t any more satisfied with shorter clickstreams
than they were with longer clickstreams. The satisfaction of users doesn’t
depend on the number of clicks.

Implications of User Frustration

In our studies, users complain about how long it takes to find things all
the time. This is one way that users vocalize their frustration. They tell
us that if they could only reduce the number of frustrating clicks the site
would be better.

However, these complaints aren’t actually about the clicks. They are really
complaints about failing to find something. When users find what they want
they don’t complain about number of clicks.

We see this phenomenon quite often: users complain about a symptom and not
the real problem that caused it. They want to explain why they are failing,
and in this particular case, one of their initial thoughts is that they are
clicking too much.

A Misdirected but Well-Intentioned Rule

The Three-Click Rule isn’t completely bad. People talk about it with users
in mind, even executives who have never designed a web site. The rule may help
designers focus on the information that users need and may help them create
better web sites. These are admirable qualities.

We can’t be overly critical of a rule that has the effect of helping designers
keep their focus on users and their needs. However, the Three-Click Rule does
not focus on the real problem. The number of clicks isn’t what is important
to users, but whether or not they’re successful at finding what they’re seeking. •