A Short History
Essentially, the 3-click rule requires everything within a website to be accessible within three clicks of the homepage. Everyone, even your friend’s nanna, reckons the 3-click rule is the best rule of thumb for designing great websites. During any meeting with business and user stakeholders, you are likely to hear them endorse the 3-click rule at least twice.
A long overdue obituary
The 3-click rule lived a long and infamous life. The rule’s birth date is tellingly unclear. However, it is almost certain the rule was born during the first website era of grey backgrounds, serif fonts and tables with default borders.
A valued member of society
The 3-click rule enjoyed immense popularity during the mid 1990s. Designers and smug people proffered the rule in hopes of sounding all smart like and in-the-know during first dates with their future spouses. Wide endorsement of the rule hit its peak in the late 90s – with the esteemed Jeffery Zeldman joining the chorus in his book titled “Taking Your Talent to the Web”.
The formative years
The rule was most pertinent when creating little websites for the local dog wash business which only had enough dollars for 10 web-pages (note, these were the days when web pages was still hyphenated).
Things started to go a bit wrong
At this time no one seemed to mind that the 3-click rule had fundamental issues. The major problem was scalability. In really large websites the rule didn’t scale up much past 100 pages. If a website has several hundred or more pages, this meant a really top-heavy global nav structure, mind-bogglingly long lists of links on each page, and other crazy clutter-prone mechanisms to link all those pages together. Users had to scan stupid amounts of information at once, and got frustrated with it all damned quick!
Birth of a new era
But everything changed when Chi and Pirolli at Xerox birthed the theory of Information Scent. The theory of information scent superseded the three click rule. Information scent describes how people hunt through the available pathways when they’re looking for information on a website. Sites with really strong info scents are really good at leading users to the content they want to find. Sites with faint or weak information scents mean that users spend much longer evaluating the options they have and increases the chances that they will select the wrong option.
Creating a strong information scent involves giving users just enough context and information at each pathway decision point. This makes it easier for them to choose the best pathway to lead them to the information they want. As long as users are confident they’re heading in the right direction, then they’re not likely to abandon a site if it takes more than 3 clicks to get where they’re going.
R.I.P 3-click rule (and not a minute too soon).
Please share your memories of the 3-click rule or leave your notes of condolences as comments below…