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The 3-click myth for intranets debunked

The 3-click myth for intranets debunked

At Intranets 2013 in Sydney earlier this year I was invited to join a ‘mythbuster’ session where I was asked to debunk the belief that “Everything must be 3 clicks or less from the intranet home page”. This post summarises the case I made, or you can watch the 5-minute video:

The principle that everything should be within 3 clicks has been around since the mid-90’s, appearing first on the web and soon after in the intranet world. Although long disproven, it has a zombie-like resilience, not least because it seems to have become a public meme. It often crops up when I’m doing focus groups with employees. Someone will say “the intranet is too complicated” and all in the room will nod. Gathering confidence, they’ll add “it needs to be much simpler – I should be able to get to everything I need within three clicks!”. It sounds such an innocuous request, a common-sense plea for simplicity. But it is misleading in a number of ways. Imagine, for example, that somebody was designing a city and the residents said “We don’t like turning corners, want to get to every destination in just three turns”. Does that really sound like an efficient way to get around

Is there something special about 3 clicks vs 4 or 2?

No. There is no drop off point at 3 clicks. We’ve known this since 2003 when Joshua Porter did a meta-analysis of around 8000 clicks.  Across a whole range of tasks, he found that a few percent abandon with each click, but this carries on for up to 15 clicks. There is no dramatic drop-off at three. Moreover, if  taken literally it implies that a 2 click rule would be even better!

Is there a principle of wide rather than deep?

Perhaps the 3-click rule is illustrative of a more general principle that it is better to have a shallow, bushy navigation structure rather than a deep one? No. It might work for small websites, but not big sites like intranets or eCommerce sites. Imagine, for example, that your intranet homepage had 40 links. That’s a pretty busy page but not uncommon. Then lets say that every page you can get to from there also has 40 links, and when you click on one you get 40 more. Is this sounding like a friendly site yet? At this point the 3 click rule says you must find your target on that page for your final click.

In this scenario we have a maximum possible set of 40x40x40 = 64,000 items. This isn’ that many for a corporate intranet – I have more documents than that jus ton my laptop. It means that to go beyond this we have to add ever more links to each page, making each page harder and harder to scan.

Is it about clicks at all?

No. What people find hard is not the act of clicking, but the mental effort involved in deciding what to click

What really matters is ‘information scent’, the notion that with each click I feel like I’m getting closer to what I need. So if I’m looking for running shoes I might click ‘Clothing > Footware > Sports Shoes’ and feel reassured that I’m eliminating irrelevant content with each click. If I see ‘Handbags’ I’m going to lose confidence and probably abandon. To get good information scent, it is sometimes better to have more click rather than fewer. . In the book Prioritizing Web Usability Neilsen and Loranger describe work they did on an e-commerce site where they changed the site structure so that goods were  four clicks away rather than three. In doing so they made the product categories much clearer, and success rate went up 600%. On intranets I sometimes see catch-all menu items that are so broad that they have poor information scent. For example “My Workplace” and “About Acme” might be better broken down into more sub-categories, even if it means more clicks.

What about personalisation?

I didn’t have time to cover this in the video, but there is potential for automated personalisation to help here. If an intranet makes sensible choices based on someone’s profile, it can bring more relevant content closer to the top of the navigation tree, and push other content further back. It can be a good way to make frequently-used content quick to access – when used often the location becomes learned, so the information scent is less important. The important thing is to ensure that Infrequently-used content can still be found even if it takes longer. Just because Amazon knows I’m a middle-aged male, it doesn’t mean I might one day want to buy a handbag (for my wife, as a gift, honest!).

I once did an online card sort with a client involving around 70 terms. One employee created just two piles which they labelled  “Stuff I need” and “Stuff I don’t need”. That about sums up the ideal world from a user point of view. For more articles on this topic, I recommend UXMyths

There’s more…

My fellow mythbusters were all very entertaining and I highly recommend you take a look at their videos too:

  1. Jonathan Phillips (Coca-Cola Enterprises, UK):
    Social collaboration replaces traditional intranets
  2. Michal Pisarek (Dynamic Owl, Canada):
    Intranets don’t need navigation, only search
  3. James Robertson (Step Two Designs, Australia):
    Scrolling pages are evil

Intranet Mythbusters courtesy of @UXMastery

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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