Think of the last purchase you made. Maybe it was a stroller for your child. Maybe it was a takeout order. Maybe it was new shoes for a wedding, which was my last purchase.
I went to DSW’s website and was relieved to see the category “Women’s Evening & Wedding Shoes.” But even in this specific category, there were so many options. Platform shoes. Strappy shoes. Colorful shoes. Designer shoes. Leather shoes. Sparkly shoes.
At first, this seemed like a good thing. I had so many options! I could find exactly what I wanted! But the more I shopped, the less ready I felt to checkout. What if the shoes were uncomfortable? What if they were too casual, or too fancy? What if I got heeled sandals and wished I’d gotten flats? What if they didn’t match my dress? What if they were too matchy-matchy? And on and on and on my thoughts swirled. I did eventually pick out a pair but it took me forever.
This isn’t a unique situation either. According to Hick’s Law, people take longer to make a decision when presented with more options. Below we’ll take a closer look at this law and how it applies to user experience (UX) design.
What is Hick’s Law?
Hick’s Law describes the time it takes for a person to make a decision as a result of the possible choices they have. According to the law, increasing the number of choices will increase the time it takes for a person to make a decision.
Short for the Hick–Hyman Law, Hick’s Law is named after British and American psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman. In their quest to understand the relationship between the number of stimuli and an individual’s reaction to to any given stimulus, they created an equation: RT = a + b log2 (n)
Let’s break this equation down:
- RT = reaction time
- a = the time that is not involved with decision making
- b = an empirically derived constant based on the time it takes to cognitively process each option (approximately 0.155 seconds for humans)
- log2 = logarithm function
- (n) = the number of equally probably alternatives
Hick’s Law Example
Hick’s Law applies best to situations in which response time is critical and decision making is simple.
So say your phone starts playing a sound. It takes three seconds to detect that the sound is an alarm you set. So a = 3. Because you’re human, b = 0.155 sec. You have four buttons to turn off the alarm: Snooze, Stop, the home button, and the power button. So n = 4. Let’s plug these numbers into the equation to solve for response time.
The time to respond would be RT = (3 sec) + (0.155 sec)(log2 (4)) = 3.31 sec.
Now consider if there were eight buttons to turn off the alarm instead of four. Then the time to respond would be 4.31 sec. Now consider if there were 12, 20, 40 buttons. The time to respond would continue to increase logarithmically.
This makes sense when you consider information overload. Information overload occurs when a person has too much information or options to consider, which makes it more difficult to make a decision. When information overload occurs, it’s more likely that a person will make a poor choice or one they’re unhappy with.
Hick’s Law in UX
Hick’s Law can help you design a better user experience for a website, app, pop-up form, smartphone, remote control, oven, and much more.
If a user is presented with too many options, they might get frustrated and stop using the product. Or they might pick an option you don’t want, like unsubscribing from your newsletter, exiting out of a form before filling it out, or abandoning their cart. But if they’re presented with less options, they’re more likely to make a decision — or at least enjoy their experience.
UX designers can use Hick’s Law to simplify their navigation menus, forms, terms of service, and anything else that requires users to make relatively simple decisions. Let’s take a closer look at some of these applications below.
Whether you’re creating a navigation menu for a website, app, or other product, too many options on a menu can confuse users and make it harder for them to decide which path is the right one for them. The same goes for restaurant menus.
You probably have at least one form on your site. Maybe it’s a contact form, or newsletter opt-in form, or one for account registration. No matter the form, you want to limit the amount of options as much as possible. Making them fill out too many fields or providing too many buttons can cause users to abandon a form — and bounce off your site altogether.
The skincare company Brown and Coconut offers a great example of an email sign-up form that implements Hick’s Law. The user has two clear options: sign up for emails or exit out of the form. If they choose to complete the form, they only have to fill in two fields.
Terms of Service
Terms of service agreements are lengthy — and for good reason. But because of the length and breadth, it’s important to give users and customers different options to review them, especially if they’re signing a contract or paying money.
Pricing pages are another common pitfall for information overload. In an effort to provide different options to encourage buying, you can inadvertently make it harder to decide, and therefore to buy. Offering filter options that allow prospects to filter according to the price point they want or the product they want can help prevent information overload.
HubSpot, for example, doesn’t list the prices of all its products on one page. Instead, it allows users to click into the specific product tab they are interested in buying.
Homepages can set the tone for the rest of a user’s interactions with your site or app. If the first thing they see is a homepage that’s cluttered with modules, text, images, and videos, it can be extremely off-putting, and make it hard to find the information they need to make their next move.
How to Implement Hick’s Law
You don’t have to be a UX designer to implement Hick’s Law into your own website, app, or product. Just follow the steps below to make it easier and faster for users to make decisions and complete tasks.
1. Reduce the options for time-critical tasks.
To implement Hick’s Law, it’s essential to remember these three words: less is faster. In other words, you can speed up a user’s response time by providing only the most essential options.
Take Clarke's Cakes & Cookies for example. To speed up the user’s checkout process, the website provides an option to “Add to Cart” when a user hovers over a menu item.
2. Break down complex processes into smaller steps.
Another way to implement Hick’s Law on your site is to break down complex processes — like the checkout process — into smaller steps. You can allow users to view and edit their cart on one page. Then input their shipping info on the next page, and their payment information on the next. Riot Swim breaks down the checkout process in this way.
3. Highlight recommended options.
To reduce the time it takes a user to make a decision, you can highlight or prioritize a recommended option in your design.
Consider Smashing Magazine’s cookie consent form, for example. The user has three options: accept the cookies, don’t accept, or learn more about the magazine’s privacy settings. The recommended option — accepting the cookies — is highlighted with a pop of color and emoji.
Applying Hick’s Law in Your Designs
There are hundreds of web design rules and best practices to follow. But most of them boil down to one common thread: Don’t complicate your users’ already overcomplicated lives.
When designing a website or product, it’s easy to toss a word in here, another color in there, and one more feature in the navigation. It’s much harder to limit the design and functionality to only what’s needed for the user to complete a certain set of tasks or goals — but the end result will be a product that provides a great user experience that keeps them returning for more.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in October 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.