GuidesUser experience (UX)Hick’s Law and UX design: What you need to know

Hick’s Law and UX design: What you need to know

Last updated

11 May 2023

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Dovetail Editorial Team

User experience (UX) can make or break a product. Even if yours has the most advanced functionality on the market, very few people would choose it over a competitor that’s easier to use—even if it’s slightly less capable.

Hick’s Law is one of the principles UX designers employ to improve the usability of their designs.

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Understanding Hick’s Law in UX design

Hick’s Law is named after British psychologist William Edmund Hick. It states that the more options people have, the more time they’ll take to make a decision.

UX designers use the law to make more intuitive interfaces. By reducing the number of options presented to a user at once while still maintaining the required functionality, they can create an interface that’s quicker to navigate and easier to learn.

For example, when designing a website’s UX, the designer may choose to limit the number of items in a navigation menu. Placing more information in sub-menus means the user can quickly make a series of choices rather than spending a long time on the first one.

The designer might also favor simple pricing options. But, if none are available, they will try to present the options clearly and concisely.

The goal is to look at any areas where the user has to make a decision. The number of options for each step should be kept to a minimum, and a UX designer will try to ensure that’s the case.

Hick’s Law and Miller’s Law

Miller’s Law states that the human brain can only process about seven pieces of information at once. UX designers consider this and present information in the way that’s easiest for the user to digest and remember.

Miller’s Law is different from Hick’s Law in theory. However, in practice, both mean that UX designers should aim to create simple interfaces that limit the amount of information a user encounters at one time.

Hick’s Law and Fitts’s Law

Fitts’s Law is less directly related to Hick’s Law. It states that the relationship between a target’s size and distance impacts the time it takes to reach it. For UX design, this means larger and closer targets are easier to click on.

Keeping Hick’s Law in mind makes following Fitts’s Law easier. Targets can be made larger and closer together when there are fewer options to present to a user at once.

When to use Hick’s Law in UX design

Hick’s Law is useful in almost any situation where the user is presented with a set of options. However, there are times it shouldn’t be used, which we’ll discuss below.

The most commonly used areas of UX design impacted by Hick’s Law are:

Users can’t easily navigate a website or app without a prominent navigation menu. However, if the menu has too many options or is poorly organized, it becomes more difficult for the user to find what they’re looking for.

Hick’s Law dictates that designers should organize the menu into smaller sections so it doesn’t overwhelm users. Focusing on the most frequently used items will help reduce the overall count.

Forms

It’s often necessary to get information from the user with a form. However, each additional field in the form provides more friction for the user. They may decide not to fill out the form at all when confronted with too many fields.

Rather than get no information, it’s better to scale back the form so that it only asks for the information you absolutely need. This increases the chance of the user filling it out. When more information is necessary, you can split the form into multiple pages that are easy to digest.

Terms of service

Everyone has experienced clicking on a terms of service page and being confronted with a massive wall of text. Most people just skip to the end without reading.

You can minimize this by breaking the terms into smaller sections and using simplified language to reduce the amount of text in each section.

Pricing pages

When users decide which version or tier of a product to use, they will likely see a pricing page. The more complicated the page is, the less likely they are to make a purchase.

The most successful companies limit their pricing page to just a few tiers. When practical, they can place additional options and upgrades on a secondary page after the user has made their initial decision.

Home pages

The home page is only meant to be the gateway to a website. Its purpose is to give the user an entry point to find more information. As such, UX designers should minimize the information presented on the homepage. Instead, they should make it easy for the user to know where they can find the information they need on additional pages.

When not to use Hick’s Law in UX design

Hick’s Law suggests that too many options can lead to decision-making overload, which can negatively impact the user experience.

However, sometimes you have no choice but to present detailed and complex information. For example, perhaps the nature of your business means you need to present a complex pricing structure. If it isn’t practical to organize the information in a series of smaller options, then UX designers shouldn’t force the issue. This could confuse the user even more.

When the level of complexity is related to the number of customization options, there are other ways to make the information easier to digest. Designers can use filters, search bars, and other tools to help the user find what they need quickly, without artificially limiting their number of choices.

Implementing Hick’s Law in UX design

When it’s time to put Hick’s law into practice on your projects, there are three techniques to keep in mind. These will help you identify the areas that need to be improved and find ways to present the information so that it’s easier to consume.

Conducting usability testing

Usability testing can help identify the areas where things aren’t as clear as they should be.

Designers can determine where users are having a hard time making decisions and focus on simplifying those parts or presenting the information more clearly and concisely.

Analyzing user behavior data

Beyond usability testing, behavior data such as click-through rates and time spent on a page can help designers understand where users are struggling. It can also identify the most frequently used elements and help designers learn how to prioritize the information.

Using design principles to simplify information

Armed with user feedback and behavior data, designers can use visual cues such as size, color, and placement to draw attention to important information. They can group related elements together to break the number of options into a logical hierarchy.

Evaluating the impact of Hick’s Law on UX design

We’ve seen how data can be used to determine areas for improvement. However, it’s not enough to make changes and assume they were correct. Instead, designers should constantly evaluate and refine their designs.

After addressing the customer feedback during the usability testing phase, did the usability increase, decrease, or stay the same? Frequent usability testing will help ensure that you stay on the right track.

Similarly, when designers use behavior metrics to judge usability, those metrics should be tracked over time. Did the changes made actually improve the metrics? When possible, A/B testing should be used to determine the most impactful design options. Remember, just because A beats B doesn’t mean a third option wouldn’t beat both. The best option can only be found through continuous evaluation and refinement.

Customers will give you feedback even when you’re not actively engaged in usability testing. This is especially true when something is difficult for them to use. If a significant number of your users are complaining about a design, there’s likely a problem with it.

Examples of Hick’s Law in UX design

Unsurprisingly, some of the world’s most successful brands use Hick’s Law. Although the user probably isn’t consciously aware of these decisions, the designers no doubt took great pains to provide a simple interface that’s compatible with Hick’s Law to help propel their brand’s success.

  • Apple’s minimalistic interfaces—with products like GarageBand and iMovie, Apple pioneered the concept of a minimalistic user interface. Even in its professional-grade software, Apple maintains the same minimalistic nature without reducing functionality.

  • Amazon’s one-click ordering system—many of the options a user is presented with will be the same each time, such as billing and shipping information. Amazon understood this and provided a one-click system that greatly simplifies the ordering process.

  • Netflix’s “continue watching”—if a user has previously watched an episode of a show, they likely want to watch the next one as well. The “continue watching” feature puts those episodes front and center on the dashboard.

  • Google’s suggested results—users might not know exactly how to phrase what they’re searching for. Their choices are limitless. Google’s suggested results reduce the potential choices and help users refine their thoughts.

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