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Design Tip:
Should You Break The "Three-Click" Rule?

by Larisa Thomason,
Senior Web Analyst,
NetMechanic, Inc.

  
July 2003 (Part 2)
Vol. 6, No. 14
 • Design Tip
 • Promotion Tip
 • JavaScript Tip
  

Conventional wisdom is that site navigation should be so simple and shallow that a visitor never has to click more than three times to reach the desired content. But a recent study shows that the so-called "three click rule" may be more myth than reality. What's really important is creating an effective navigation system that gets visitors where they want to go.

Fast And Easy Information Delivery

The three-click rule is simple: a visitor should never have to visit more than three pages after the home page to find the information he/she wants. Some designers even include the home page, which requires information has to be within two levels of the home page.

If the Web design profession were governed by its own "Ten Commandments," then the three-click rule would likely be carved somewhere on those tablets! Almost every designer has heard about it and most sites try to follow it. A KPMG Web branding study published on the LeisureOpportunities.com Web site, notes in passing that 92% of online hotel reservation Web sites conform to the three-click rule.

It makes sense. Just consider the characteristics of an average site visitor - particularly one to a consumer or informational Web site:

  • Wants information fast: Some designers claim that 75% of visitors leave sites if they can't locate information after three clicks. It's a scary number, but one that isn't supported by published usability studies.

  • Is easily confused: Beginning users tend to become confused by complex navigation systems. After many clicks, they lose their mental picture of the site structure and "feel" lost, even if they're well on their way to completing their transaction.

Navigation should help visitors find information quickly - hence the three-click rule. But some design and usability professionals question the rule's accuracy.

Three Clicks And They're Out - Maybe

Josh Porter touched off an online debate when he published the results of his navigation study Testing The Three-Click Rule. Porter is a researcher at Usability Interface Engineering, a research company specializing in web site and product usability.

The study tests the theory that there is a "relationship between a user's success at finding the content they're seeking and the number of pages they visit." The results were surprising:

"Our analysis showed that there wasn't any more likelihood of a user quitting after three clicks than after 12 clicks…Hardly anybody gave up after three clicks."

Porter notes that users complain "all the time" about how long it takes to find information. He suggests that visitors are complaining about the symptom when the actual problem is poor site organization.

The three-click rule is no panacea. In fact, it may mask other problems with the site. A designer can proudly point to the site map that shows every page is just 2-3 clicks away from every other page without considering if that's the best structure for the site.

Navigation More Important Than Clicks

Once you've created unique and valuable content for your Web site, the next step is to organize it into a logical, intuitive structure. A good navigation system helps visitors develop a mental map of your Web site.

Designers have many different options to display a site's structure:

  • Breadcrumb navigation: We use one here at the NetMechanic site - just look towards the top of this article. It's a way to display the current page's location within the site's overall structure.

  • Site maps: These present the site's structure in the same way as a book's table of contents section. The Webmaster Tip Give Visitors A Map discusses the benefits of site maps and resources that help you create your own site map.

  • Tree navigation: This structure uses drop-down menus that display the subcategories under major categories. For a good demonstration of this technique, visit the MSNBC Web site and run your mouse over the left navigation menu.

Visitors usually don't mind a few extra clicks to get to their important information. But they hate wander aimlessly through a site with no clear destination. Your structure and navigation system should help visitors find information quickly and easily. Ideally, it should also help you promote your site to search engines.

Fewer Levels = Easier Promotion

Search engine spiders are often just as impatient as human visitors: they may leave a site after indexing only a few levels.

Many search engine algorithms give greater relevancy to content that's placed higher up inside the site's structure, so it's better to position important pages on the second level instead of the fifth. Search engine spiders are more likely to index it and human visitors more likely to find it.

But even when you're working hard to design a spider friendly site, some content just has to slide down to the third, fourth, even fifth level - even if it's really important. In that case, consider deep submitting your important pages directly to search engines instead of hoping the spiders find them.

Also remember that not all visitors "click" with a mouse. Many navigate using their keyboards or other assistive technologies. Be sensitive to those preferences and design accessible navigation systems that give all visitors easy access to your site content. Our Accessibility Resource Center contains more articles and links that help you design accessible Web pages and navigation systems.

Overall, the three-click rule is not a Web law - or even a commandment. Instead, think of it as a useful guideline that helps you design a logical structure that's easy to navigate.



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