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Design Defined: How Does ‘Hick’s Law’ Apply to Product Design?

(This post is based on the video, “Hick’s Law,” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)

How many buttons are on your TV remote? A lot of remotes have way too many buttons, and on top of that, they can be poorly organized. Having so many options can cause undue stress and confusion when you’re just trying to perform a simple task like changing a channel.

Some companies have realized this and are now designing simpler remotes. Whether they know it or not, they’ve applied Hick’s Law or the Hick-Hyman Law, a principle named after two psychologists.

Hick’s Law predicts that the time and effort it takes to make a decision increases with the number of options. The law explains why having too many options negatively impacts a user’s experience and makes it harder to complete a task.

Designers can use Hick’s Law to help simplify the decision-making process for users.

Hick's Law predicts that the time and effort it takes to make a decision increases with the number of options.

Hick’s Law Keeps it Simple and Straightforward

Hick’s Law can be applied to any type of design work — whether it’s a website, mobile app, menu, or physical product. Regardless of what you’re designing, the options you present to users should be simple and straightforward.

By providing users with fewer options, you save them time and effort. Less work usually leads to happier customers. When users become frustrated or overwhelmed by the number of options, they may stop using your product.

When Time is Critical, Decisions Should be Simple

Hick’s Law is especially important when it comes to time-sensitive tasks where response times are critical.

We use Hick’s Law when designing digital and physical interfaces for medical devices. If an alarm goes off on a medical device that’s monitoring a patient, it needs to be addressed as quickly as possible, so we include only the most likely and essential commands.

Hick's Law is especially important when it comes to time-sensitive tasks where response times are critical.

Reducing the number of physical buttons on the product and cleaning up the interface to make the UI more understandable enables a nurse, doctor, or caregiver to act confidently and immediately.

Determining the Number of Controls Is a Balancing Act

Hick’s Law is also useful when designing car interiors. Drivers often need to perform tasks blindly and quickly while keeping their eyes on the road.

Think of a car’s temperature controls. Many cars have three dials — one to control temperature, another to adjust the fan speed, and a third to direct the airflow. Any more options would be superfluous and distracting.

Drivers often need to perform tasks blindly and quickly while keeping their eyes on the road.

It can be a challenge for designers to find the right balance of controls that lets the driver complete a task without frustration, and without limiting their abilities.

This is becoming increasingly true now that software allows automakers to bring so many features into the car cockpit. While touchscreens and AR displays on windshields may be welcomed by some drivers, critical controls should be kept simple and accessible.

Create Clear Controls Using Contrast and Grouping

Hick’s Law can be especially powerful when combined with visual design principles like adding contrast to a particular control or grouping similar controls together. Mapping,  a design principle that explains how users expect controls to have familiar, intuitive actions — can also be used to keep your users’ decision making process simple.

For example, many TV remotes will place the arrow buttons near the number pad. Buttons for more specific commands will be grouped together, either above or below the more critical functions, and the power button will likely be red and placed at the very top. Those patterns help to simplify the choices for users.

The patterns on TV remotes help to simplify the choices for users.

Simplify Tasks by Breaking Them Down

Hick’s Law is relative to the type of task a user is trying to complete. It best applies to simple, direct tasks (like changing a channel) as opposed to complex ones. If a decision requires extensive research or contemplation, Hick’s Law won’t be able to predict the time required to make a choice.

It’s possible to use Hick’s Law when designing complex systems if you break the complex task into simple steps.

In some cases, it’s possible to use the principle when designing complex systems if you break the complex task into simple steps. For instance, purchasing something from an online retailer like Amazon involves a complex process. But Amazon breaks that process down by offering only two options at a time. It asks if you want to add an item to your cart or buy now. If users select the former, Amazon presents them with two more options.

This approach is almost like a flow chart, and it can be used to reduce the time and effort required for users to move through a complex process.

Selecting the Right Controls

As you evolve as a designer, you’ll get a better feel for the best approach. If you’re ever unclear as to how simple is too simple, do some research — whether it’s online research, or actual testing with users.

Card sorting exercises can be a useful tool to determine how to organize the choices you’ll present to users. There are a number of ways to do this, but essentially you’ll create cards for different controls and spend some time looking for different ways to group or refine them.

Which Choices are Best for Your Users?

Can you improve your products by simplifying the choices you present to users?

Always remember who you’re designing for and what those users need to achieve with your product.

Learn about more product design principles when you download our free Design Defined ebooks, v1 and 2!