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A Breakdown of Hick’s Law: What Every Web Designer Needs to Know

March 2, 2023
By Frank Rodriguez
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Websites can be frustrating to navigate. With Hick’s Law, web designers can avoid that situation entirely.

It’s no secret that creating the optimal user experience on your website is essential for increasing sales and conversions. The last thing you want is a website that frustrates users and causes them to bounce — losing you opportunities to sell to potential customers who will be now hard to win back since their first impression has been set. As such, web designers have a considerable stake in determining whether or not that user experience will be smooth.

Thankfully, web designers can apply an extremely powerful principle called Hick’s Law to their designs to avoid unfavorable scenarios like that.

So what is Hick’s Law?

If you’ve heard of the phrase “K.I.S.S — Keep it Simple and Straightforward”, then you’ll already have a solid grasp of the underlying principle of what Hick’s Law tries to achieve.

Simply put, Hick’s Law states that the more options a person is given, the longer it takes them to decide. Eventually, too many choices will cause an information overload and paralyze the user from making a decision.

Hick's Law Graphic
Hick’s Law

Let’s use a real-world example. If you’ve ever visited the Cheesecake Factory, you’ve probably noted how obscenely large the menu is. I mean… seriously, that thing is enormous!

In general, we attempt to avoid giving customers too much to process by not providing them with an overwhelming number of options. So, we use Hick's Law to streamline our decision-making as much as possible.
The menus aren’t actually that big, but they sure feel like it…

If it’s your first time visiting, according to Hick’s Law, it’ll probably take a while to figure out what you want to eat if you go through the whole menu. Alternatively, you’ll get tired of looking, spot something that looks good enough, and call it a day.

This is partially why many high-end restaurants won’t do what the Cheesecake Factory does. There’s typically a much shorter menu with specifically curated options. This is because they want you to focus on relaxing and enjoying the experience — the last thing they want to do is to stress you out with too many options. 

People behave very similarly when browsing sites on the web. But instead of settling with an option, it’s more likely that they’ll just bounce off and go to the next website if they can’t find what they need.

So for web designers, applying this principle is essential for creating websites that provide a good user experience to the end users.

In general, we attempt to avoid giving customers too much to process by not providing them with an overwhelming number of options. So, we use Hick’s Law to streamline our decision-making as much as possible.

How to know if your website isn’t using Hick’s Law properly

When your users are struggling with decision-making on your website or getting frustrated, that’s a clear indication that your website is failing to apply the principles of Hick’s Law. Or maybe they just don’t understand what you offer.

But in order to diagnose these issues, it’s critical that you use analytics tools to measure and interpret customer behavior on your website. Without these tools, there’s no way to objectively measure what’s going on with your website. Much like a doctor can’t prescribe the treatment without knowing the symptoms, you shouldn’t be making aimless changes without any real data to support your decisions. We personally recommend using Hotjar.

That said, here are some common signs that your website may not be using Hick’s Law effectively:

  • Tons of views and little positive action/conversions. If your site is getting a significant amount of visitors, but no one is taking any action and bouncing off your site, that can be a sign that your site may be too overwhelming. This also indicates poor website design, which typically goes hand-in-hand with a poor user experience.
  • Low total page views. If you’re noticing people aren’t visiting more than one page on your website, it’s possible that navigation is too complex, overwhelming, or perhaps simply not labeled well.
  • High abandonment on contact pages. When users are navigating through to the contact page and not filling it out, it’s possible that the contact form has too many fields or just seems like a chore to fill out.
  • They are spending too much time without taking action. If a user spends a lot of time on your website and leaves without taking action, they may be interested in your products/services but are having trouble finding what they need.

How web designers can use Hick’s Law to create better user experiences

If your website lacks any of the areas above — don’t fret!

In many situations, even small tweaks can significantly benefit your conversion rates. For example, Taskworld saw a 40% uptick in conversions after reducing the number of fields in their form from five to just one. 

That’s the power of Hick’s Law in action! Faster decision-making, less user frustration, and a better overall user experience. So let’s get right into the nitty-gritty.

Remove, reduce, reuse! 

As you’d expect, using the logic of Hick’s Law, reducing options should be your first line of defense when optimizing your website’s user experience. 

First, start off by analyzing your website’s existing navigation and interface. Navigation is one of the absolute most important elements of a user’s experience on your website — so determine what’s truly essential and what can be removed or maybe even combined elsewhere.

For example, if you offer many services, it will almost always make more sense to remove them individually from your navigation and nest it under a single dropdown labeled “Services”.

Use hick's law to combine similar elements

You can use analytics tools and user research to identify the most commonly used features and functions on your website — any options that see very little action should either be removed or reworked.

Additionally, avoid unusual menu titles; you may think a name is cool, but it may mislead the user surfing your website. For instance, we had a customer ask us to use Our Tribe instead of Our Team. Everyone knows how to interpret Our Team, but Our Tribe may have another meaning to the general public – keep the menu simple and leave the prose for poetry.

Pro Tip: Remember, while we want to reduce redundant or unnecessary elements, this isn’t to say that you need to make your site barebones. We’re looking to simplify decision-making for our users, not remove it entirely. Options aren’t inherently a bad thing!

Think about the context — who is your end user?

With that in mind, it’s important to note that Hick’s law doesn’t always mean you should always have fewer options on your website. Ultimately, the application depends on the context and the intention of the design. Often, there are times when you can’t avoid having a variety of options. 

For example, think of a professional photographer using a DSLR camera compared to the average person just using their smartphone’s camera — the number of options readily available to each will be wildly different. 

hick's law usage largely depends on the context. Sometimes, you can't avoid having a lot of options.

Hick’s law doesn’t really apply the same way to a photographer’s camera. Why? Because they’re usually already a power user who is already deeply familiar with the interface. For pro photographers, having all the options and settings to manually adjust the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure compensation, etc, is crucial to nailing the shot precisely to their specifications. 

On the other hand, the average person won’t need much besides the one button to snap their photo using their smartphone. Your end user should always influence how you apply Hick’s Law to your designs to deliver the best user experience.

Use progressive disclosure

Progressive disclosure is a fancy way of saying certain options are on a “need-to-know basis.” In fact, we’ve already shown a few examples, even though you may not have noticed!

In general, we attempt to avoid giving customers too much to process by not providing them with an overwhelming number of options. So, we use Hick's Law to streamline our decision-making as much as possible.

Progressive disclosure is a technique that involves withholding information from a user until they need it. Let’s go back to our phone camera metaphor real quick. 

As we mentioned, the average user won’t want to do much more than a singular button to capture their picture. However, it would be untrue to say those phone cameras have fewer options overall than a traditional DSLR. In fact, they may even have more — but the thing is that they don’t show it at all once.

Many phones now include multiple modes, including a Pro Mode which includes all of the traditional settings you’d normally find on a DSLR. But they won’t appear unless you’re specifically looking for them. This way, the average user isn’t overwhelmed, but the ability for greater creative control is easily accessible to those who need those more intricate settings.

Let’s apply this principle to something commonplace across most websites— a contact form.

It’s certainly an option to display everything at once. However, the denser a contact form is, the less likely people will stay around to complete it. Refer back to our TaskWorld example. But a lot of the time, most businesses will need more than just a singular email field.

As such, a highly effective way around this is to break your form down into bite-sized steps. Instead of everything at once, only show one question at a time. That way, users are more likely to get started with your form (and are more likely to finish it since they’ve already invested time into it).

A scrolling contact form can be interactive and make the experience more pleasurable and aesthetically pleasing.

Pro tip: Avoid creating too many stages of progression. Breaking things into steps will make it easier for users to begin, but avoid making users spend too long to get to what they’re looking for. Otherwise, you risk them becoming frustrated and leaving.

Create Funnels for Users

When a website overloads users with too many services or products immediately, it’s often a fruitless endeavor in an attempt to satisfy the needs of every single user. When you offer a breadth of services or products, every user is not necessarily looking for the same thing. If you were to list every single option right off the bat — chances are they’ll bounce. No one has time to search through all that when someone else can make it easier. 

In these situations, finding ways to funnel users toward their final destination is much better. As long as you make the path from point A to point Z easy to follow, they will walk it.

Speaking of A to Z, Amazon is one of the best examples of this approach. With their massive catalog of products, there is no possible way of reducing the total amount of options needed or showing exactly what you’re looking for immediately.

In general, we attempt to avoid giving customers too much to process by not providing them with an overwhelming number of options. So, we use Hick's Law to streamline our decision-making as much as possible.

Despite this, shopping on Amazon is incredibly easy. Of course, on their landing page, they will list deals or products they predict are trending — but finding precisely what you need is as simple as typing in the search bar up top. Afterward (and only after) are you presented with all of their more advanced options to filter your results down by price, rating, reviews, product condition… so on and so forth.

Group similar options together

It’s always good practice to group similar things together to create “families” of information. Grouping related items is a cornerstone of graphic design — and creating a great user experience on the web is no different. Doing this reduces the cognitive load on the user because it makes your site much easier to scan. Users don’t need to worry about looking through all the other options presented until they find the overarching category they need. A great example of this in action is mega menus.

To illustrate the idea of a mega menu, let’s first assume we were designing a website for a grocery store. The logic follows the physical stores very closely. Ideally, if you’re looking for chicken… you’d probably find that in the meat aisle, where all the meats are. That makes sense.

In general, we attempt to avoid giving customers too much to process by not providing them with an overwhelming number of options. So, we use Hick's Law to streamline our decision-making as much as possible.

Similarly, on the website, we could group all beef, chicken, and pork products into overarching categories like “Meat” on the website. And then kinds of milk, cheeses, and butter into a “Dairy” category. This makes it way easier for users to find what they’re looking for quickly because the categories are labeled clearly and intuitively.

Your website should consistently deliver the best user experience

Using Hick’s Law is essential for any website to deliver the best possible experience to its users. An optimized website following the principles of Hick’s Law can deliver several benefits for business owners — from improved user experience and higher conversion rates to increased sales and search engine rankings. 

By simplifying your website and reducing the cognitive load on your customers, business owners can create a website that is easy to use, engaging, and keeps users coming back for more. Of course, applying these principles to your website is easier said than done. So if your team needs help delivering an excellent user experience for your customers, Mighty Fine is ready to help.

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