“Mouse Rage” And The Three-Click Rule

Bill White

By: Bill White - Partner, MillerWhite Integrated Marketing

Category: Technology

You knew it had to happen. Researchers at the Social Issues Research Centre at Oxford, England, have identified a condition called “mouse rage,” which some people develop when they’re forced to interact with badly designed and hosted web sites.

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This is not a joke. Researchers measured the physical and physiological reactions of 2,500 people who were asked to find information from several web sites. They measured brainwaves, heart rate fluctuation, muscle tension and skin conductivity.

While some users were able to keep their cool when facing frustrating navigation or slow-loading pages, others showed distinct signs of stress and anxiety. Researchers observed participants whose faces tensed visibly, then experienced “quickening heart rate, increased sweating, furious clicking of the mouse, simultaneous clicking and cursing the screen, and ‘bashing the mouse.’”

You’ve been there. If you’ve encountered a confusing or difficult-to-navigate web site, lost your concentration and gotten angry, you’ve been a victim of “mouse rage.”

Web designers may not have labeled this condition “mouse rage,” but for years they’ve professed and upheld the simple “three-click rule” in an effort to avoid this kind of reaction in their users.

The three-click rule of web site design is the cardinal rule of page navigation that says if people can’t find what they want within three clicks of landing on your site, they will become frustrated and give up. It’s based on common sense and has been in use so long that many web designers, and executives of the companies for which they design web sites, insist on hard and fast adherence to it.

The three-click rule was initiated when virtually no one was Internet-savvy. Many Internet neophytes were easily confused by web navigation, so the Keep It Simple Stupid principle gave birth to the three-click rule, which then rose to sacred status.

However, there isn’t a lot of empirical evidence to support the three-click rule. A recent review of several scholarly articles about how users seek and use information on the web revealed nothing that would suggest a particular number of clicks to be preferable.

For example, James Kalbach, writing for the Internet Technical Group, cited a 1995 study by Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card that concluded, in Kalbach’s words, “In information rich environments searchers constantly weigh the potential information gained against the cost of performing a task necessary to find information. Therefore, an important design challenge is optimizing users’ time.” This might be a justification for “a simple and limited number of well-organized navigation options,” but neither Kalbach nor the scholars he cited recommended a prescribed number of clicks when creating web navigation.

Will Schroeder, writing about web site usability for User Interface Engineering (UIE), went so far as to label the three-click rule a myth. “In fact, on every site we have tested in the last three years, it takes more than three clicks (except for featured content) to reach any content at all,” Schroeder wrote. “Not a single user has left any of these sites within three clicks, and only a handful chose featured content links. ‘Three clicks’ turns out to be a false constraint, focusing designers on objectives that will not necessarily benefit users or improve the site.”

A 2003 study done by User Interface Engineering and reported by Josh Porter actually tested the three-click rule by analyzing more than 8,000 clicks of users attempting to complete 620 tasks. Porter reported, “As we study our data, the (three-click) rule tells us we should see users dropping off after hitting the third page, leaving before they have a chance to succeed (in their search)…Our analysis showed that there wasn’t any more likelihood of a user quitting after three clicks than after 12 clicks.”

Porter continued, “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-click rule is just a myth.”

Further analysis of the data, Porter wrote, revealed that some users complain about the number of times they have to click to find something when what they are really frustrated about is the fact that they can’t find what they are looking for. If they had been able to find it, or if the site had made them feel they were on the right track, they wouldn’t have complained about the number of clicks.

From my perspective, it would seem that today the majority of users who come to the web are Internet veterans and therefore are not likely to be confused by complex navigation systems. The research shows that the important thing is for users to feel that they are on the right track. If they do, they will continue to click – and click and click – up to even 25 clicks, without falling victim to “mouse rage” and dropping the search.

Pursuit of the three-click rule can lead to designing a site that has many elements on the home page – sometimes too many to make navigation simple. Based on the UIE study, it’s important for companies to consider re-evaluating their web sites and try to simplify navigation, even if that means requiring more than three clicks to bring users to their desired content.

The important thing to remember is that the first step in designing your web site is not necessarily breaking everything down by products and services, but by the audiences you want to connect with – what are they really looking for? If you keep navigation simple and easy to follow, they’ll go as deep as a dozen clicks with only minimal drop-off. And for users who are coming to look for something specific, adding a search mechanism on your site will help to deal with the click issue.

A good place to start is with an audit of your web site that analyzes competitors’ sites, measures search engine optimization and meta tags, looks at how design elements affect readability, evaluates interactivity, and determines usability, including click-through.

The fact that the three-click rule is still being used as a standard for many web design projects is not all bad. You can’t fault a rule that keeps designers focused on users and their needs. But it isn’t the number of clicks that’s important to users. It’s how successful they are at finding what they’re looking for.

It’s that success that will counteract an episode of “mouse rage.”

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