Human-Computer Interaction - UX Glossary

Counting clicks. Underestimated measure of design complexity and business processes

“Every function in a digital system should be within a maximum of three clicks.” It’s hard for me to count how many times, when presenting an interface concept, I’ve had to explain what the problem is with this entrenched, but unfortunately untrue belief about the system and interface design.

Untrue because it ignores much more important criteria, such as the frequency of use of a given function in the system, the context of the user, its role and access rights, and, finally, the design of the information architecture itself.

Simple truths, however, are like intellectual bad money that drive out nuanced truths, which require a good understanding of the problem and its broader background. Nonetheless, the intuition suggested in that myth, is not entirely meaningless. It reflects – although in a simplified way – something that each of us, as users of digital solutions, intuitively grasps: the fewer clicks, the faster we can get something done. This, in turn, translates into the efficiency of an application, website, or e-banking and determines our satisfaction or irritation.

Clicks as a measure of efficiency (one of a few)

Definitions aside, high efficiency (along with interface operator effectiveness and satisfaction and fault tolerance), is indeed cited as a feature of a useful solution. The effectiveness of an interface can be measured by different measures: the average time it takes to complete a task, the cognitive effort the system requires to operate, or just the number of clicks needed to accomplish particular process.

Counting clicks

And this last parameter is the most objective and independent of the subjective evaluation of a person using the interface.

So, when designing or evaluating a digital tool, is it worth counting clicks? As designers, we subconsciously do it anyway and we should definitely be sensitive to this aspect of the system, although of course we should not be consumed by it obsessively because we do not always know…

How many clicks should a good process take?

The classic UX answer to such a question is: “it depends”. In fact, there is no simple answer, and recommendations are usually dependent on the context (which will not come as a surprise to any designer). There are places and products where it does not matter much because the person using the application is so determined that even if he or she had to make two hundred clicks, they will complete the process anyway.

Ryanair used to run its ticket purchase process in a way that was suboptimal from the passengers’ point of view. Quite intrusive up- and cross-selling generated a lot of additional decisions and clicks, but the attractive price of the product for most customers compensated both the time and frustration related to additional actions required by the system.

However, there are two cases when clicks should really be counted – these are all situations when we deal with impulsive decisions and those where there is frequently recurring process.

The first situation occurs, for example, when registering for various services that we could use, but which are not really essential. It could be registering in a news portal to read a single article, or downloading a promotional e-book. In the case of such processes, path optimisation can significantly improve conversion rates and increase statistics that the site owner cares about.

However, the really business-relevant parameter can be in the case of online purchases (both products and services). And the smaller or less necessary these purchases are, the more important the quality and optimisation of the process is. When investing money or choosing a life insurance policy, we will probably be ready to sacrifice efficiency, because this is a relatively serious decision. By contrast, when buying travel insurance for a three-day trip, we can easily get discouraged if the service requires too much data or too many clicks.

The tech giant that recently came to Poland knows this. Amazon even patented its 1-click shopping process, which has contributed in no small part to its market success.

The good news is that the patent expired in 2017 and now any online seller can also take advantage of this optimisation. As long as they can design their process equally well, of course.

Myth 1 – The 3-click rule

So what to answer when someone asks why it takes ten clicks to set account parameters? If it is a function that is used occasionally or never, then the deeper it is hidden, the better.

Need to verify your process?

This will leave more room for displaying actions that have high priority and frequency of use. Such actions should be not three, but perhaps even one click away from where the user is currently located. This may seem obvious, but this rule is not commonly used, even in very popular applications.

Myth 2 – less is better

We should not always minimize the number of clicks at all costs. Sometimes we should even use additional clicks. First of all, it concerns situations when by shortening the process too much, we expose the user to making mistakes. Then, frustration is a much lesser evil than losing work results or causing a system crash.

Of course, this pattern is sometimes used in an inappropriate way, for example, when the designers of a website place “unfavourable” business functions, such as filing a complaint or deleting an account in a location that requires a lot of clicks. But that’s another story.

Not just clicks, but quality

In order not to focus only on superficial understanding, but to see the context (and this is the most important in good designs), it is important to remember about the quality of the process. Reducing the number of clicks will get us nowhere if our users don’t understand the commands or the logic of the purchase path.

For example, plain language used in messages and commands, appropriate graphics that support readability and emphasise the logical course of the process (contrasts, balanced colour palette, etc.), leading the audience by the hand.

And here we come to the point – the simplicity of the process. If the law or the expectations of a given organisation require, for example, entering a dozen or so pieces of data or confirming many consents, then even if the designers did their best, they will not be able to optimise this process only by a well-thought-out design. This is where User Experience and Customer Experience meet, where what happens on the screen is a direct result of how simple the services have been designed. The most effective way to reduce unnecessary clicks is to design simple and friendly services and business processes. This is where the real value of business design can be seen.

How about no clicks at all?

It is worth mentioning that many studies on effectiveness measured by the number of clicks date back to the times when interfaces were very static and maintained a division into consecutive screens.

The revolution in the creation of web tools (various frameworks, animations, dynamic and asynchronous reading of information on the screen) and the hit of touch screens (scrolling instead of clicking) make it necessary to approach the issue of counting clicks with a greater distance and keep in mind the context, device, use, and content.

After all, some solutions may not require clicks at all (autocomplete, auto-reading, etc.) – think for a moment about the auto-loading stream of news on Facebook. The designers’ intention is that we should not even think for a moment whether we want to go to the next page, because one more small swipe of the thumb comes so effortlessly…

The difference between the ideal world and the real one

An interesting aspect worth mentioning is also measuring clicks in usability tests. It may happen that, according to the designers, the process is designed so that three clicks are enough (ideal world), but the users do not cope with finding the right path and click many times more often (real world).

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After all, it doesn’t matter how well a process is optimised for minimum clicks if the audience doesn’t understand it. That’s why we often compare metrics collected during specific usability testing sessions and see how they compare to the optimal path. Together with gaze plot analysis (eye path recorder during eyetracking testing), this is a very helpful and objective measure of how easy the interface is to use.

To count or not to count?

I think it’s worth leaning into the issue of click-through rate and not underestimating it. It is not a bad measure of the effectiveness of a process, and its big advantage is objectivity. It can provide us with interesting material for comparison in the case of benchmarks. It’s no holy grail – you have to be aware of the superficiality and limitations of such a metric, but sometimes it’s a good starting point for discussing specific design solutions.

The number of clicks is an easy-to-understand statistic that is persuasive to stakeholders who may not fully understand the beauty of using a “progressive disclosure” pattern but seeing that the competition has a few fewer clicks in a comparable process, they are sure to listen carefully.

Comparative click counting

In the hundreds of usability audits that EDISONDA has conducted, we’ve explored different paths, counted clicks of specific processes, and compared competing projects.

So for a dessert, here are some of the analyses we’ve already done, looking at a variety of industries.

  1. Online parcel delivery – this is definitely a process that needs a lot of optimisation, and the results surprised us a lot. On the surface, it seems very schematic and well-structured, but not all courier service providers do a good job of simplifying it.
  2. Setting up a brokerage account via the Internet – in the face of reports from foreign markets about very simple and “light” solutions that allow investing in shares (including a very large round of financing for Robin Hood) and the growing popularity of investing in Poland, we checked how local institutions are doing in this area. Our quick analysis shows that there is still a lot of room for optimisation here.
  3. Booking a doctor’s appointment online – the pandemic has accelerated the development of telemedicine and convinced many people that the Internet is also a good place to meet a doctor. Or at least to book a medical appointment quickly and conveniently. Unfortunately, this is still not working out well for all healthcare providers.

This is certainly not the end of the story and we will continue to look at different industries. We’re also open to suggestions on which industries would be worth counting clicks in. And if you’re thinking about such a more in-depth analysis, feel free to contact us. It will take you 5 clicks to submit the contact form.

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