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The Three-Click Rule
You may have heard of the three-click rule of web design, which states that users of your website should have to click no more than three times to access the information they want. Joshua Porter's research all but debunked the rule as worthless, and Porter published his findings over four years ago, but the "rule" still persists in the clients of hapless web designers, who screech that "it must follow the three-click rule!" It does, after all, sound like a nice, clean, sensible guideline that any web designer worth his or her salt should be following as a matter of course.
The problem with the three-click rule is twofold. Firstly, it's difficult to implement effectively, especially for a large site. Wide, shallow navigation means more links per page, and that means more frustration, not less, for those trying to find information on your website. What's more, you can't guarantee that your visitors will arrive at your homepage first. What if they found a page of your website through a search engine? Should every page be a maximum of three clicks from every other page? The rule is vague as well as narrow-sighted.
The second major problem with the rule is that it doesn't hold true that visitors to websites will quit looking after three clicks. Actually, they will quite often keep clicking until they find what they want, so long as they feel like they're getting closer to what they're looking for. If they find themselves going round in circles, or links are broken or don't lead where they say they do, then they get frustrated. But it doesn't really matter if they have to click a few times to get to what they want.
There have been some criticisms of Porter's study, and they're worth mentioning. One critic argues that the study didn't draw a distinction between different kinds of tasks. People are inclined to be more forgiving if they're just looking for information than if they're trying to complete a task such as buying something or paying a bill.
There are some things you feel *ought* to be easy. For example, if you're trying to give someone your money (i.e. paying a bill, making a donation, or buying something), you probably feel you shouldn't have to jump through dozens of hoops to get there. If a website purports to have lots of information about ostriches, but you have to click four times to actually find anything about them, you might feel somewhat cheated and annoyed.
On the other hand, number of clicks is perhaps less important than ease of navigation. Links need to be clearly labelled. Site maps, tree navigation (including expandable menus) and breadcrumb navigation can all help your visitors to find what they're looking for. Sticking rigidly to the three-click rule misses the point: your visitors will be willing to keep clicking, so long as they're making progress. Even if they can get to where they want with only one click, if that click involves a button that is right at the bottom of the page whose destination is less than clear, you'll have a frustrated visitor on your hands.
By Brian Jackson