Using ‘Hick’s Law’ to create better solutions

Many years ago,  when DVDs were still popular, I had a huge collection of my favourite films on DVD.  “This is awesome” the big kid movie fan in me would say, but the larger the collection got, the longer I would be standing there, in front of my DVD wall as I would call it, trying to decide on which film to watch.  I knew that I loved each film, but deciding when they were all on display in front of me was a nightmare. By the time I had decided, I had no time left to watch the film.

This I have discovered is called Option Paralysis.  The paralysing effect of too many options on the brain is too much.

Jam Study

In 1995, Columbia University conducted a study where they would test this theory.  

Professor Iyengar and her research team, set up Jam booths of samples of the same Jam at a California gourmet market. The team would switch the selection from 6 Jams to 24 every few hours to see what effect it would have on consumers.  They offered taste samples and on average, customers would taste 2 jams, regardless of the assortment.

Over the day, more people were drawn to the table with 24 options, 60%,  while less, only 40%, stopped when there were 6 options. The interesting thing is, only 3% of the people who stopped when there were 24 options made a purchase, while the table with 6 options had 30% of customers purchase some jam.

The professor stated that the study “raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory, but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”

With these results in mind, it becomes obvious that options are good, but too many options can be bad.   So what can be done about it? Well, there is a solution, Hick’s Law

Hick’s Law – What is it?

Named after a British and an American psychologist team of William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, Hick’s Law (or the Hick-Hyman Law) is the result of an examination of the relationship between the number of stimuli present and an individual’s reaction time to any given stimulus. As you might expect, it takes longer to choose from a larger pool of stimulus, therefore a user bombarded with stimuli, have to take time to interpret and decide, which gives negative feedback from the user as they don’t want to waste time.

The Hick’s Law formula is as follows;

RT = a + b log2 (n)

“RT” stands for reaction Time, (n) is the amount of stimuli present and “a” and “b” are the arbitrary measurable constants that depend on the task that is to be carried out and the conditions under which they were carried out.

For example, “a” could be finding the right present for a friend, “b” could be an online chat with said friend which reminds you to buy a gift for her.

In general, the application of Hick’s law is simple – reduce the amount of stimuli and get a faster decision-making process – with some exceptions. As an example,  a user made may have made a decision beforehand and therefore their decision to act may be quicker or slower depending on that decision.

Hick’s Law – Implement

Hick’s Law can be found everywhere, from web and app design to the U.S Navy and other industries. Hick’s Law was used to determine how many controls your microwave has.  A design principle known as K.I.S.S (Keep It Short and Simple) was used as standard by the 1960s and so on. Mirroring Hick’s Law, K.I.S.S proposes that simplicity is the keystone for system efficiency. The U.S Navy quickly adopted the K.I.S.S principle and many other industries followed suit by the 1970s. Over the years the K.I.S.S acronym has been translated to “Keep It Simple, Stupid”.

Hick’s Law’s objective is to simplify the decision-making process, without eliminating the process entirely. 

In conclusion

Hick’s Law (or the Hick-Hyman Law) states that the more stimuli (or choices) users face, the longer it will take them to make a decision. For designers of all types, this presents a challenge, making it imperative to offer the most useful set of options to avoid frustrating the user. 

Bad user experience – Too much choice   Good user experience –  Just what is needed

While implementing  Hick’s Law there are 2 things we need to remember:

  1. The user’s time is precious.
  2. A user is not obliged to stay on the site,  so enhance the user experience.

To do this, consider the following:

  • Categorise choices – Enable users to find items from higher categories, like sections in a library
  • Obscure Complexity – Break up Long or complex processes into screens with fewer options

Remember that Hick’s Law is a guide to help you create a good user experience in your design.  Always consider changing perspective to see different user journeys. Avoid bombarding the user with options, bearing in mind the balance required between the user’s time and comfort zones for handling choices on a page. Try to guide the user between clear options which will get them where they want to go, quickly, allaying the users feelings of being overwhelmed by choice.  This is good for you and the user.

Article by Richard Slade Sansford

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1 Comment

  1. Mum on July 25, 2019 at 11:36 am

    Clear argument for using ‘Hicks Law’ ,although stats in the middle section a bit confusing . Maybe bullet points of numbers /percentages may have been clearer ? Very true though cos people do get overwhelmed with too many choices . Well done you xx

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