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Hick’s Law: Making choices easier

Hick’s Law: Making choices easier

There are many rules, guidelines and recommendations we follow as designers. A highly important one to follow is Hick’s Law. Hick’s Law (or the Hick-Hyman Law) is named after William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, both psychologists. In 1952, this pair set out to examine the relationship between the number of stimuli present and an individual’s reaction time to any given stimulus. As you would expect, the more stimuli to choose from, the longer it takes the user to make a decision on which one to interact with. Users bombarded with choices have to take time to interpret and decide, giving them work they don’t want.

It may all sound like common sense, but it is often neglected in the rush to cram too much functionality into a site or application. As designers, we will use Hick’s Law to examine how many functions you should offer and how this will affect your users’ overall approach to decision making. Being able to understand Hick’s law means we can design so that more users will visit and stay on your website.

Making sure you deliver a good user experience requires that first, you find out the functionalities that will answer the user’s needs. Second, you need to guide them to the specific functions they need most. 

If users end up stuck in the decision-making process of “what next?” without Call To Actions (CTAs), they may become confused, frustrated, or even… leave your website!

It turns out there’s an actual formula to represent the relationship between the number of stimuli and people’s reaction time: 

RT = a + b log2 (n) 

“RT” is the reaction time. “(n)” is the number of stimuli present. “a” and “b” are arbitrary measurable constants that depend on the task that is to be carried out and the conditions under which it will be carried out.

Fortunately for us, we don’t really need to understand the math behind this formula to understand what it means. The concept is quite simple: the time it takes for users to respond directly correlates to the number and complexity of options available. 

It implies that complex interfaces result in longer processing time for users, which is important because it’s related to a fundamental theory in psychology known as cognitive load.

We can relate this to website design quite easily, in the form of menu/navigation items. If a website doesn’t have a clear and concise structure and hierarchy to the sitemap, it can confuse users and hinder them finding what they want. The more items in the menu = the more time it will take for the user to navigate to the page they want.

Another example in relation to websites, is the landing page. This is the first glimpse your user will have of your website. This is a make or break chance to create an impression! So, it’s particularly important to minimise choices here.

Are you promoting a product or a service? If you’re selling fish tanks, what’s your best-selling one? Do you want users to book online or call up to enquire? Introduce your company and try to highlight the most important information in as few clicks and scrolls as possible.

Most importantly, draw the user’s eye with well-placed images, graphics and call-outs. They’ll see that before they start reading. Basically, make the option you most want them to select stand out so it is obvious.

As designers, we have an important choice to make before presenting a design to users, with the choices that we offer on our sites. We have to use Hick’s Law in conjunction with other design principles to get the balance between the right choice and too many choices.

Everybody wants to save time – after all, time is precious. When we create user experiences, we’re working to reduce the amount of time needed for a user to get done what they want to do. Combined with other principles, Hick’s Law is a powerful way to understand user behaviour and how users make the choices they do.

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