Hick’s Law: Designing Long Menu Lists


Would you believe it if I told you that a
menu with 20, 30, even 50 options, could be just as fast or even faster than a menu with
only 10 categories? It’s pretty unexpected. Traditionally, we think of menus as being
most efficient if there’s fewer options to pick from. And don’t get me wrong, in many cases that’s
absolutely correct. But there are some rarer cases where it’s
actually acceptable to have a long list in a menu. Now, in order to reach that elite status of
being a menu that’s appropriate for many, many items, you have to satisfy two criteria. The first is that is has to be in order. Typically, alphabetical order works pretty
well. The second criterion — and here’s where
it gets more important — is that the list contains items that are known to the user. So it’s a list of words and terms that the
users know that exact meaning. They know that exact term. So think of, for example, a long list of brands
or companies or TV shows or U.S. states. If we were to picture that long list of U.S.
states — and say we’re looking for Pennsylvania. Wherever the user’s eye lands first, the user
can adjust their gaze accordingly. And they can adjust their gaze because they
know it’s an ordered list, and they know the name of the item that they’re looking for. Pennsylvania will not be called by anything
but “Pennsylvania.” So they can quickly skip over all of the other
content, all of the other letters, that aren’t necessary, that’s not what they’re looking
for. And that makes navigating a long list of 50
items really quite efficient. The reason we know this to be true is because
of the Hick-Hyman Law. Hick’s Law refers to the process of making
a selection from a list. And the law says that: the more items in a
list, the longer it’s going to take to make a selection. Not too surprising. But this very unique set of lists where there’s
an ordered list and all of the items in the list are known to the user; those two attributes
combine to make for really efficient scanning. And therefore, even if you have a very long
list, users can be very efficient with it. So you can use Hick’s Law and this understanding
if you’re ever faced with a decision of whether or not to include a really long list of menu
items. And you might find that if it in fact satisfies
those two criteria, it’s actually okay, and your users will be quite efficient with it. So consider Hick’s Law if it applies to you.