Simplifying Choices: How to Take Advantage of Hick’s Law in Web Development

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The only thing worse than making a decision for people dealing with anxiety is making a decision where there are more than a dozen options available. While thankfully not all of us have to deal with severe anxiety issues all the time, I’m pretty sure there was at least one point in our lives where we were overwhelmed by the choices that are presented to us. I’ve been there plenty of times when trying to book a hotel for the holidays, when trying to pick up a new pair of jeans and when digging through the thousands of video games that are on sale during Steam’s annual summer and Christmas sale events.

Variety is indeed the spice of life but just as how things are when you’re cooking, it is actually possible to overseason your dishes. Everything should always be in moderation and sometimes, putting a limit on the options that are available to customers might actually be a good idea. Too much of everything can lead to anxiety, indecision and eventually, to lost sales. Obviously, this is something that every business would very much like to avoid, resulting in the application of Hick’s Law in the world of web development.

Simplifying the decision-making process

Also commonly referred to as Hick-Hyman Law and first theorized by psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, Hick’s law posits that the time it takes for a person to make a decision depends on the amount of available options and increasing the number of choices will increase the decision time on a logarithmic basis. There’s actually a mathematical formula that details this law in greater detail but in this piece, I’m just going to focus on the big picture. Hick’s Law sounds maddeningly obvious but in the pursuit of offering the most comprehensive list of features, this law tends to get overlooked by web designers and developers.

As a business owner, you’re regularly advised to cater to everybody’s needs and at its most basic interpretation, it does seem that Hick’s Law explicitly argues against that idea. On the surface, that might be true but in practice, there’s more to Hick’s Law than just simply reducing the number of available choices. The ultimate goal of Hick’s Law is to simplify the decision-making process so that even the most complex of decisions and/or actions can still be executed without laboring of what this or that will do.

In interface design, this idea manifests as the acronym K.I.S.S. or “Keep It Simple Stupid”, pardon the language. In certain cases, there would be no simply avoiding complexity but the challenge lies in making that complexity accessible. Manual controls in any kind of camera is comprehensive by design and removing that level of comprehensiveness would defeat the point of manual controls entirely so you’re going to have to figure out a way to ease users into the process. In the world of web development, the gentle hands of Hick’s Law could be used in several different ways.

Introduce everything in bite-sized chunks

In an e-commerce platform for example, instead of just simply adopting a free-for-all approach, you’re going to want to use proper categorization for your products so as not to overwhelm your customers. First, you start with category A, B and C. One users picked category A, they’re presented with category AA, AB and AC and this continues until said user would be able to find exactly what they’re looking for. Using this categorization approach, you could have thousands of available items but users would have the option of viewing only a dozen of them at any given moment, which makes it that much more manageable.

Another way of adopting this bite-sized approach is to introduce everything in a series of steps. This is very important in a checkout or a registration process where instead of presenting every forms and boxes a user have to check, you divide them into a series of steps and left out the unnecessary information for later. If there’s anything the human race have in common, it’s our disdain for bureaucracy, standing in lines and filling forms and anything you can do to make them as painless as possible would definitely be appreciated.

Hide the complexity of your interface

Just as how we’re advised to not find out how sausages are made, businesses should endeavor to keep the complexity of their system hidden from view unless the user specifically requests to see them. For example, manual controls in mirrorless cameras are typically hidden from view unless the user specifically chooses to enable manual controls. Just as with cameras, you want to keep unnecessary customization options hidden from view, at least at the beginning, to keep users from getting overwhelmed.

Make it so that each option is clearly distinct from each other

It’s pretty common for businesses that in the interest of covering their bases, they end up offering several options to users that are too similar to each other. This isn’t practical in two different ways since it could lead to your products cannibalizing each other’s sales and could very well end up confusing your users. To alleviate this issue, offer users with several pre-packaged selections and then provide extra customization options inside the product page using the approach described in the previous section. This way, you could satisfy users that are looking for something simple while still satisfying those that are looking for more granular options.