Less is more

Applying Hick’s law to user experience and interface design.

By Mark Butt

“19th century culture was defined by the novel, 20th century culture by cinema, the culture of the 21st century will be defined by the interface.”

Aaron Koblin, ted talk 2011

TLDR (too long, didn’t read) is not really a joke. It is a serious problem for user experience and interaction designers trying to convey a great deal of information before the site visitor tunes out and clicks away.

Users will bounce if they have to wade through irrelevant and copious amounts of information. Experience and UI designers need to build in choice pathways focused around core user needs that allow site visitors to navigate quickly and find the information they desire. However, providing choices, designers soon run up against Hick’s Law.

Hick’s Law describes a psychological effect in Information Theory where the number of choices people have correlates to a logarithmic, rather than a linear, increase in the amount of time they need to make a decision. People also tend to be less satisfied with their choice the more choices they have. As with automated phone trees, the proliferation of choices can rapidly drive a website visitor from curious to frustrated to enraged.

Background of Hicks Law (Wikipedia)

In 1868, the relationship between having multiple stimuli and the choice reaction time was reported by Franciscus Donders. In 1885, J. Merkel discovered the response time is longer when a stimulus belongs to a larger set of stimuli. Psychologists began to see similarities between this phenomenon and the Information Theory.

Hick first began experimenting with this theory in 1951. His first experiment involved 10 lamps with corresponding Morse Code keys. The lamps would light at random every five seconds. The choice reaction time was recorded with the number of choices ranging from 2–10 lamps.

Hick performed a second experiment using the same task, while keeping the number of alternatives at 10. The participant performed the task the first two times with the instruction to perform the task as accurately as possible. For the last task, the participant was asked to perform the task as quickly as possible.

While Hick was stating that the relationship between reaction time and the number of choices was logarithmic, Hyman wanted to better understand the relationship between the reaction time and the mean number of choices. In Hyman’s experiment, he had eight different lights arranged in a 6x6 matrix. Each of these different lights was given a name, so the participant was timed in the time it took to say the name of the light after it was lit. Further experiments changed the number of each different type of light. Hyman was responsible for determining a linear relation between reaction time and the information transmitted.

In practice, designers often site Hick’s Law in limiting the number of links or the sprawl of menu choices, but it actually goes much deeper than that.

Internalizing the lessons of Hick’s Law means integrating a minimalist design philosophy across the user interface. The goal is to reduce a user’s cognitive load as they search for the content they want. Minimalistic design doesn’t mean having less content, it’s about appropriately aligning the business and user goals, prioritizing and focusing on the core content that user’s are looking for.

This includes the information architecture, the site and content structure, use of screen resolution & visual design elements. Striking the proper balance will create a positive user experience, brand loyalty and ultimately increase site performance. Users will remain loyal ambassadors and continue to use your product if they enjoy their experience.

A series of experiments on practical applications of Hick’s Law by researchers at Columbia and Stanford University, found that people are initially attracted to having more options, but those with less options are more motivated to purchase.

In their first experiment, researchers compared two tasting tables in a supermarket, one with 6 exotic jams and another with 24.

The results are compelling: Slightly more people stopped at the table with (24) the greater number of choices (60 percent vs. 40 percent), but at both tables, people tasted the same amount of jams (1-2 per person). Strikingly, a much larger percentage actually purchased the jam after stopping at the smaller (6) jam table (30 percent vs. 3 percent).

Although shoppers were slightly more attracted to having more options, they were actually motivated to purchase when they had less.

So, when the user must make a critical decision like a purchase, less is always more!

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