Hick’s Law (Hick-Hyman Law)

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Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt: 2d illustration minimal style of a series of numbered doors, increasing in number from left to right. A character stands before the doors, a thoughtful expression on their face, symbolizing the decision-making process

One of the biggest challenges in designing digital products is creating interfaces that are intuitive and user-friendly. To achieve this, we often turn to fundamental principles of psychology and human behavior. One such principle is Hick's Law, which posits that the time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices1.

Understanding Hick's Law can profoundly influence the way we approach product design. Let's explore this concept through three examples and see how it applies to the creation of digital software products.

Be aware that this law only applies when the number of options is ordered, for example, alphabetically. This is implied in the base two logarithm - which implies the decision maker is essentially performing a binary search. If the options are not well ordered, experiments show the time taken is linear.

This is has significant impact in UI design; ensuring that users can easily search through options leads to faster decision making.

A correlation has also been shown in Hick's Law between IQ and reaction time as shown in Speed of Information Processing: Developmental Change and Links to Intelligence.

Examples

Navigation Menus

Navigation menus are a key component of many digital products. According to Hick's Law, a menu with too many options can overwhelm users and increase decision-making time. For example, a website with a cluttered navigation bar packed with numerous categories, subcategories, and links may confuse users, leading them to abandon the site. Instead, designers can employ techniques such as dropdown menus, mega menus, or side navigation to organize options and make the menu more manageable and user-friendly.

E-Commerce Product Selection

Hick's Law plays a crucial role in e-commerce platforms. When customers are presented with a vast array of products, it can lead to choice paralysis, causing them to leave without making a purchase. To mitigate this, successful e-commerce platforms use filters, categories, and recommendation algorithms to simplify the decision-making process. By narrowing down the number of choices based on user preferences, these platforms can enhance the shopping experience and increase conversion rates.

App Onboarding

When introducing a new user to an app, offering too many options or information can be overwhelming. This is where Hick's Law comes into play. Instead of presenting all the features at once, a better approach would be to use a progressive onboarding strategy. This method introduces features one at a time, allowing users to understand and engage with each feature before moving on to the next.

Hick's Law is an essential principle to consider in digital product design. By understanding the impact of choice on decision-making time, designers can create more efficient and intuitive interfaces. However, it's important to note that while reducing choices can speed up decision-making, eliminating too many options can also lead to an oversimplified interface that doesn't meet user needs.

The key is to strike a balance between simplicity and functionality, providing users with enough options to meet their needs without overwhelming them with choices. This balance can lead to a more engaging user experience, higher user satisfaction, and ultimately, a more successful digital product.

Origins

Hick’s Law (or the Hick-Hyman Law) is named after a British and an American psychologist team of William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman. 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.

In the equation below, T is the time to make a decision, n is the number of options, and b is a constant which is determined by analysis of the data.

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