Information scent & the myth of 3-clicks

 Web users are happy clicking if they are confident they are following a scent to their goal.

It’s a long time since I came across the 3-click rule but it reared its head the other day. The 3-click ‘rule’ is based on the ‘fact’ that web users don’t like to click and if they can’t find want they want  in 3-clicks they give up and try another website.

The evidence doesn’t back this up.  Research shows the opposite.  Users don’t stop clicking after 3-clicks; when Testing the Three-Click Rule researchers found that:

there wasn’t any more likelihood of a user quitting after three clicks than after 12 clicks… in our study, users often kept going, some as many as 25 clicks…

In the usability testing there was no correlation between number of clicks and successful task completion; no differences in the click numbers for successful tasks versus unsuccessful tasks; and no correlation between number of clicks and user satisfaction.

So if the number of clicks doesn’t matter, what does?

Information scent

Web usability experts have found that confidence in the next step and not having to think are more important than the number of clicks.  Ginny Redish writes that the smoothness of the path is key. Users will willingly and perhaps unconsciously keep clicking if they are confident of the information scent and believe they are still on a pathway to their goal.

When presented with a list of options users will choose the option that gives them the clearest indication (or strongest scent) that it will step them closer to the information they require

From Information scent: helping people find the content they want

The case for designing websites around a scent of information comes from Jared Spool and is itself based on information foraging theory by Peter Pirolli.

Steve Krug, in Don’t make me think! argues that people looking for information will continue clicking as long as it is painless and they don’t need to think.  Users get frustrated by having to stop and think where to click next, rather than the number of clicks.

Improving your scent

  • Make links explicit, descriptive and unambiguous; use short words, use phrases, avoid jargon and blah blah blah
  • Match your link text to the resulting page title, so that users know they are still on the scent
  • Provide more context on pathway pages; add sub-links or short phrases that make the scent of the main link stronger
  • Keep the pathway (pages) free of other text – users won’t really read other stuff until they reach the information that answers their question
  • Put the most important links high on the page; people will “satisfice” and choose the first plausible option


Reader Comments

  1. What matters is that the content engages the reader as they continue to explore! If it’s interesting and relevant you will keep their attention. If not one click may be enough!

    Some really interesting posts btw Matt. Keep them coming!

  2. Is this one of those interweb rules possibly made up by an “e-commerce expert” in the early days of the web that somehow became axiomatic.

    Obviously it is a different medium but I tend to think if people are interested or finding something useful they will keep turning the pages of a book.

  3. I agree with you both (Sue, Leo) that readers will continue reading interesting content, even online. The information scent is more about: 1) getting people to that content 2) sites that provide specific answers (information) rather than stuff to read (blog posts, news articles, learning material).

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