The assumption that users must be able to access all content with a maximum of 3 clicks is simply false, and we have the data to prove it.
Website, and Intranet, design has matured almost beyond recognition since the early nineties. Copies of Frontpage have been banished to the great software cemetery in the sky, and modern content management systems allow us to develop very sophisticated systems with relative ease. As an industry we have made great strides in our tools, processes, and methodologies.
But one or two relics from the early days still remain, including a number of design myths. Anyone who is involved developing web based systems will be familiar with this request from clients:
“Users must be able to access all content with a maximum of 3 clicks”
This is generally referring to an unofficial web design rule, the '3 click rule', specifically talking about navigating to content. It suggests that a user of a website, or Intranet, should be able to find any information with no more than three mouse clicks. Any more than this and the user will become frustrated and abandon the task at hand.
It is a theory that arose very early on in the short history of website design, and as such has attached to it a certain kudos. Nobody quite knows why it is held in such high esteem, but it is very rarely questioned. Clients who contract vendors to build websites or Intranets seem particularly fond of quoting this phrase during the requirements gathering phase, and look on in horror if they are told it is no longer relevant.
A Look at the Data
Way back in 2003 User Interface Engineering (UIE) ran a very interesting article on this subject. They start their piece with a very sensible statement: "On the surface, the 3 click rule makes sense". Of course it does. We all want end users to get to the content they are looking for as quickly as possible. "Quick" surely equals less clicks? Well the short answer is "sometimes".
UIE then go on to do something few people actually do themselves, they test the rule. More accurately they carried out a meta analysis, by looking at the data from a study of 44 users attempting 620 tasks. The tests involved users clicking through a site to complete a number of tasks. In total users in the test completed nearly 8000 clicks.
The 3 click rule should show users dropping off after hitting the third click or page, when trying to complete a particular task. Tasks taking over 3 clicks should show up as unsuccessful, with a sweet spot for successful tasks hovering somewhere between 1 and 3 clicks.
The data didn't show this at all. In fact it showed users hardly quitting after 3 clicks, and often happily going up to 12 clicks in some cases. The results showed that few users gave up after 3 clicks.
Satisfaction Didn't Significantly Suffer
So users will carry on clicking, and will complete tasks that require more than 3 clicks. However this doesn't mean the users were left happy with their experience. So this was looked at as well in the test. Guess what? Fewer clicks did not result in more satisfied users. Those tasks taking more than 3 clicks were completed by happy users. Our 3 click rule is looking a little shaky to say the least.
We are all aware that statistics can be presented to prove almost any point. So let us use a little common sense as well. I agreed earlier that the guiding principle of the rule is a sound one - don't put barriers in the way of users. But much like that other web design myth, 'don't put content below the fold', it shouldn't be treated as gospel. 3 clicks is good, 5 is fine, even 10 can be. It depends on the method of navigation, the experience, the task at hand etc. It depends on the context.
Put simply getting users successfully around modern websites and Intranets is a complicated problem. Completing tasks -- be that downloading files, taking part in work-flows, or updating status messages -- can be equally complex. Numerous tools and techniques can help form a solution - good quality content, solid information architecture, a graphic design that works. But there is no one size fits all solution, no longer are primitive statements such as the "3 click rule" relevant. It is all about the quality of the click, not the number.