Less is (Almost) Definitely More: An Introduction to Hick’s Law for Web Designers

Hick’s Law describes how the number of choices you present to people affects the time it takes them to respond. This has important implications for UX and UI design, driving important metrics like bounce, engagement and average time on page. Imagine the public excitement when, in 1951, William Edmund Hick (“Hickey” to his friends?!) and Ray (with an “a”) Hyman published research about people’s responses to a bunch of flashing lights. I’m sure no-one could imagine how important this work would be for the information age since, of course, at that time, a bank of flashing lights was pretty much the height of technological sophistication. More accurately known as the Hick-Hyman law, their research draws the (not really earth-shattering) conclusion that the more options you have to choose from, the longer it takes you to choose — we’re still waiting to see what they thought about the wetness of water. Yes, alright. There are, in fact, some really important implications of this law. It touches disciplines as diverse as Aviation, Self Defence and, of course, Web Design. Here’s how it works:   What is Hick’s Law? In simple(ish) terms, Hick and Hyman both found that, when people are presented with more choices, the increase in their response time is logarithmic. This just means that, as the number of choices increases, the response time increases at a decreasing rate. In the end, increasing the number of choices stops making much difference. 
 Don’t panic, here’s a picture:
 You can think of the horizontal axis as the number of items to choose from, and the vertical axis as time. Notice, that for 1 item, the choice time is 0. Adding more choices makes a big difference in the beginning, but much less towards the end. This law really only applies for sorted lists and tends to break down as choices become more complex, as we’ll see. It actually describes a kind of binary search. Those of you who got further in computer science than I did will recognize that this means half of the remaining items are searched at a time. The remaining half is subdivided, one half of it is searched and so on. In human terms, it’s like narrowing down the search of, say a buffet table, by deciding if you’re going to start on the right or left. Then, having chosen the right side, deciding whether to start with soup or salad. The law applies equally to the number of stimuli (say, menu items) and the number of responses. So a menu like this: will take more time to process than a menu like this: If you can’t break down the choices logically (because the list is random, for example), searching in a binary fashion won’t help. This is also true in situations where you’re familiar with the interface, or guess (correctly) in advance which choices you’ll be offered. These, then are exceptions to Hick’s Law. It doesn’t really apply, for example, when deciding “how to manage your time”… Time Management Choice by Jean-Louis Zimmerman via Flickr.   Relevance to Web Design Here’s a simple rule: The longer it takes to make a choice, the easier it becomes to make no choice at all. Don’t be that designer! Most of the time, less is more.
 There are four performance metrics that are strongly affected by Hick’s law: BounceEngagementAverage Time on PageSubjective User Experience
 If you’ve got your UX head on, you’ll realize, of course, that each of these affects your traffic, search ranking, and ultimately — if it’s a money-making business — revenue. Let’s look at each in turn:…

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