The Origin of 3-click Rule
It's been over 20 years since the 3-click rule was introduced by Jeffrey Zeldman in his book "Taking Your Talent to the Web: A Guide for the Transitioning Designer" (2001). At the time, there was no clear definition of what user experience design was, and there was no data to support the rule. However, a study by Joshua Porter in his book "Testing the Three-Click Rule" (2003) debunked the rule, showing that user dropoff doesn't increase when a task involves more than three clicks, nor does satisfaction decrease.
The Lesser Known Problem
But there are other issues with the 3-click rule that are worth considering, such as the extreme variation of the user journey. The number of clicks it takes to complete a task can depend on factors beyond just the design of the website, such as the complexity of the task itself.
For example, imagine designing a metro subway network in a city like New York or Tokyo. If we enforce a principle that every passenger should be able to reach any stop within 3 stops, the tunnel network will become so dense there will no longer be any good piece of land left to build anything on top. This can result in excessive effort and resources put into building such an "accessible" journey.
Reducing the Cognitive Load
Pursuing the 3-click rule relentlessly often requires designers to prioritize broad IAs (information architectures) over deep IAs, which have their own usability problems.
Rather than click counting, we should focus on reducing cognitive load for users. This means using menu items with strong information scent and avoiding vague, unfamiliar, or branded terms. We can also focus more on prioritizing the critical support/information that’s relevant to what the users are doing, answering to their immediate challenges at hand first.
For instance, I might be desperately look for how I can change currency right when I’m at checkout, however finding out how to refer a friend to get that rebate? That can wait, securing that limited edition watch first is obviously way more important.
In a nutshell, the 3-click rule is a rather outdated and unreliable metric for measuring the success of a website. Creating user-friendly interfaces that help users achieve their goals, regardless of the number of clicks it takes will go a long way. By reducing cognitive load and helping users quickly find the information they need, we can create a positive user experience that keeps users coming back. As UX designers, it's our job to make the journey as smooth as possible, regardless of how many "stops" it takes. So let's focus on creating accessible and intuitive interfaces that make life easier for users and stop pursing click count once and for all.