What I’ve learned from getting lost looking for a restroom?

A real life example of a common web design problem.

„Design is really about solving problems” says Uxpin, the leading sketching software provider, on their home website. And they are damn right. One of the biggest problems we all struggle with is navigation. It’s a problem not limited to web design as I discovered during my recent visit to a restaurant, when I was trying to find a restroom.

Showing user a clear path for to perform desired action has been an issue for years. It has been a nightmare for both control board designers and architects many years before the Internet has been invented. However, the challenge is growing as more and more people use smaller screens and the feature/content list tends to grow endlessly.

Three-click rule…

One of the ways to approach this problem is a „three-click rule”. Wikipedia states that „a user of a website should be able to find any information with no more than three mouse clicks”. Applying it to my find-a-restroom quest, it means that I should be able to find one without opening more than 3 doors. Chris Wright suggests this rule is based on a belief that „any more than this and the user will become frustrated and abandon the task at hand”. It was then adjusted to the needs of a mobile era by Marissa Mayer, Yahoo CEO and ex-Googler, who came up with so called „two tap rule”.

…is just a myth

Although this may seem reasonable at first, the truth there is no data to prove that. Years ago, Joshua Porter from User Interface Engineering, published a paper proving that users don’t give up after the third click.

users dont give up after 3 clicks study
„Our analysis showed that there wasn't any more likelihood of a user quitting after three clicks than after 12 clicks” he said. Zoltán Gócza lists some more studies that challenge the three-click rule.

Self evidence is the king

Remember a door from the photo above? I came across them when I was on my find-a-restroom quest and it got me thinking. There was no sign and no explanation on the door, so this could be a restroom, but It may also be a storage room or a manager's office. Decision to open that door required some consideration. Steve Krug in his book „Don’t make me think” points out that „people don’t like to puzzle over how to do things. They enjoy puzzles in their place— when they want to be entertained or diverted or challenged— but not when they’re trying to find out what time their dry cleaner closes.” And I couldn’t agree more with him while I was standing in a front of this mysterious door.

How we approach this issue?

We have to deal with this long lasting navigation issue ourselves. Generaly we prefer the mobile first approach and in the current state of art on small screens we use either as a word „menu” as a link or a bar with 3-5 most important menu items. On larger screens where there is more space we tend to expand hidden menus and show more links straight away. However, this should be done in a thoughtful way.

Large screen temptation

Sometimes more space on desktop is so tempting, that it makes designer loose their common sense. My favorite example is CNN. I like to read their CNN Politics service and I access it through their home page. On the mobile app I need to click hamburger menu or word „Home” and the drop down menu with „Politics” item appears. Not the best solutions, but at least bearable.

CNN mobile vs desktop
On the desktop version however, I still can’t find it. I have browsed through all drop downs menus on the top of the website (sometimes double leveled) and I can’t see it. When I’m desperate I usually look for an article about politics in US edition, then click word „Politics” that appears on top and I’m finally there! But I’ll bet I’m 1 of 100 to follow this path.

after opening the door the choice is obvious

Junk food = Junk navigation

As you can see on the photo above, in my real life quest the restroom was only 2 doors away. But there wasn't even the slightest scent of information on the first door. In web design the same problem occurs with hamburger menu and kebab menu as Luke Wroblewski calls it. User has no idea what to expect after clicking it. And there’s science for that. James Archer describes a high-profile case of hamburger menu implementation failure on NBC News website. That’s why I call all this food-like menus a junk navigation.

Don’t make me think 

„The number of clicks isn't what is important to users, but whether or not they're successful at finding what they're seeking” explains Porter. And their way to a pricing page on a website or a restroom in a restaurant may include a lot of steps as long as the path is obvious.