What Does This Mean to Me, Laura?

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What Does This Mean to Me, Laura?

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The “3-click rule” has been hogwash since it’s inception

30th January 2020

I’m old. I’ve been doing web work since 1997–the very early days of the graphic web. Back in those olden days, there was virtually no actual research on usability or user behavior. However, there was a glut of allegedly-educated opinions about how things should be done. I could go on for a while about how the “rules” of web design have changed in twenty years, but one “rule” that has somehow persisted, despite real data now being available, is that of “Users won’t go more than three clicks past your homepage to get to anything.” Otherwise known as the “3-Click Rule,” it haunts me still…I’ve heard it from library clients repeatedly.

There are two problems with the “3-Click Rule.” Let’s take them one at a time:

  1. It assumes everyone comes in through your site’s homepage. Take a look at how people travel through your site, using Google Analytics, and it will quickly become apparent how wrong this assumption is. If you look at the pages people come into your site on, yes, the homepage will rank highly, or even at #1…but it won’t be the only place people enter your website. If they searched Google for “storytime at [LIBRARY NAME HERE],” chances are good they clicked a link directly to a storytime event page. How far is that from the site’s homepage? Do you even know? Your users don’t care. Neither should you, as long as the user got what they were looking for.
  2. Users haven’t even cared, even historically, how far something is from the homepage. Are you old enough to remember when Yahoo! was a big deal? (Pre-Google days, of course.) In the late 1990’s, it was more of a search index than a search engine, and was making a belated attempt to catalog the internet. It did this with categories, subcategories, sub-sub-categories, sub-sub-sub-categories…you get the idea. Yahoo! did not necessarily assume that people could only handle three levels of a navigational hierarchy. The thing that Yahoo! did right, that made that possible? They used breadcrumb navigation, now a standard usability component. As long as people knew where they were in the context of the site, they were fine. Yahoo! certainly had more than three levels to many parts of its index, and users were able to still quickly browse or navigate without difficulty.
  3. What does this mean to me, Laura?

    There are still a fair number of historical artifacts remaining from the early days of the web. However, this is one that should be buried and never brought to light again. Navigational design doesn’t depend on magic numbers of any kind: it depends on the content of the site and the needs of the user.