Hick’s Law. Why does it matter?


The time it takes to make a decision increases as the number of alternatives increases.

All of us know that if we are presented with multiple choice compared to only one it will take more time to process the information and make a decision. So what’s new about this law? In design, there are many implications of this law, one of them being the progressive disclosure – e.g. in a sign up process give people very few questions to solve at a time instead of the whole form to increase the conversions due to quicker decision making time – as Groupon does.

However, sometimes it is not possible to present only one option, you gotta show multiple ones – e.g. signing up for different plans. In that case, the best practice is to highlight the flagship plan among all the plans, the one most popular and make it easier for each persona to take action on his pace – by the way,  persona concept is best explained by Bryan Eisenberg on his blog and talks.

One important thing to add about Hick’s Law is that it doesn’t apply to complex menus involving a lot of text or submenus. Actually it helps us increase our pace since we can scan many options at a time on a menu of a complex software where you can perform many actions and if you don’t know where to look at. In these cases, instead of showing each action item one by one, complex navigation and menus with sub menus help us find faster what we are looking for.

So, Hick’s Law is more applicable to simple decision making tasks in which there is unique response to each action which happens to be the most of the e-commerce websites. You go to a website to make a decision to buy, and if you are distracted by too many options (like too many messages, images, text) then you will bounce and leave the site especially the value proposition is not clear on the page immediately.

There are four basic design principles that Robin Williams points out on her brilliant book that makes any design easier to read, easier to comprehend and relate to.

  • Proximity
  • Alignment
  • Repetition
  • Contrast

They all sound very intuitive and you may think we all pay attention to these principles on our applications, but believe me, we don’t. Here are two websites which you can visit if you decide to buy an airline ticket – with only one simple goal in mind. Hick’s Law says, less options results in quicker execution. But of course first you have to understand what your options are and where to start. On which page do you think, it is easier to start with your buying process?

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