Hick's Law: Why less is more in UX

Hick’s Law: Why less is more in UX

When it comes to deciding what content and call-to-actions to include on a page, the mantra “less is more” still rings a bell.

In fact, the issue is so prominent that the savvy web designers have been paying particular attention to a web design principle called the Hick’s law.

What is Hick’s Law?

Hick’s law is originally a concept in psychology. It describes the positive correlation between the number of choices (or stimuli) available and the amount of time a person needs to make a decision.

In plain English, it states that as the number of choices increases, people need more time to make a decision.

The proof for the validity of Hick’s law abound. An everyday example is when you can’t just make up your mind which dress or pair of trousers to buy because there are lots of colours and designs. Do you think it would be easier if there were fewer choices?

Another good example could be hand-picked from the field of Behavioral Economics. Decision paralysis has some roots in the proliferation of choices. Too many choices just increase the cognitive load of assessing and making the final decision.

One instance could be when researchers thought that offering more retirement plans could actually help people decide better. The results of the study, on the contrary, showed that there was a 20% decline in participation when people were offered 59 plans compared to when they had 2 options.

Hick’s Law in UX:

UX designers have already claimed a huge share from the world of psychology. Hick’s law, in particular, has made designers put more value in clarifying the main purpose(s) of a page and reduce the number of choices on a web page by either categorizing them (as in the case of menus or product categories) or pruning the unnecessary ones.

Jacob Nielson presents the argument for aligning user interfaces with user experience across the web although he does not reference Hick’s law directly. From his point of view, some web designers are losing sales because of complex and inconsistent interfaces.

His tips to solve this problem is first to comply with the web design standards to avoid inconsistency, and second to reduce unnecessary features so that people can do the desired tasks more easily.

This points directly to the field of conversion optimisation. In order to have more conversions from your page, you need to reduce complexity and make decision-making easier. ConversionXL brings on the example of Wine Library and how they could make decision-making easier by adding filters to the product page.

Unbounce mentions the example of its own webinar registration page. When they decided to reduce the number of registration options from four to three, the conversion rate increased by 16.93%. Too many registration options hurt Unbounce’s conversion rates.

As for the number of form fields, an infographic by QuickSprout explains how reducing the number of fields in a form could increase conversions. More fields in your form could get you less conversion.

Warning; ‘less’ can really be ‘less’

UX designers are also wise enough not to misinterpret Hick’s law. Sometimes increasing the amount of time spent on a page could actually be beneficial. Early conversions, for example, could increase the number of low-quality leads for a business.

Rand Fishkin explains in one of his Whiteboard Friday videos that Moz people who started using their services in their first visits to their website ended up leaving the funnel or cancelling their purchases.

He then goes on to explain that unless your early visitors are well familiar with your product, you need to provide enough educational opportunities before they start buying from you. Time spent on a website or the number of visits to it have a direct influence on the quality of the leads.

This should not be interpreted as an exception to Hick’s law. In an attempt to straighten some misunderstandings of the concept, Jason Gross argues that Hick’s law should actually be applied in “phases”.

This means web designers should make decision-making easier based on what the visitor is looking for in a page. If a person clicks on a link to your page, he is probably aiming for something, be it your content, your product, your product’s demo, or anything else. Now, unless you could make a page that clearly offers what the visitor is looking for, he will have trouble making up his mind and taking the final action.

Optimising websites for ‘less’

By optimizing your page based on the (implicit) intentions of a visitor, you could offer a great user experience. Your first-time visitors, for example, should be guided through your educational content. So eliminating distractions and putting more focus on content consumption is a great application of Hick’s law.

It’s quite helpful to take a look at the possibility of displaying various forms of a page to different visitor segments (first-time vs. customers for example). Dynamic content is provided by automation services such as Pardot or conversion optimization platforms such as Optimizely.

Designing digital experiences has come a long way from the age of cluttered pages and confusing navigation. Today, users could literally choose to forego doing business with a brand simply because of a minor usability difficulty in deciding what to do next. So don’t bombard them with too many options that they simply can’t process, and keep Hick’s Law in mind when building your next website or mobile app.


Andrew Machin
Andrew Machin

With over 15 years’ experience in web design and digital marketing Andrew has helped many brands, both in the UK and US, create exceptional digital experiences, from websites to in-store retail experiences, such as John Lewis, Jet2, Virgin Holidays and Interflora.

Through the success of such projects Andrew has received accolades that include high-profile awards that span innovation, strategy, design and results such as the Dadi Grand Prix Award and the Digital Impact Award for Innovation.

This experience has led to Andrew judging digital design awards, been featured in .net magazine, lecturing at Leeds university and speak at seminars and conferences across the UK.

Follow Andrew @The_Machin

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