Understanding Hick’s Law: How Can You Make Users Decide Quickly?

Nandini Agarwal

Nandini Agarwal

Marketing Intern

As you approach the counter, you're greeted by a menu that feels like it goes on forever. Cappuccino or flat white? Decaf or extra shot? Almond milk or soy? The choices seem as endless as the caffeine options available.

In this moment, you find yourself caught in the crossroads of Hick's Law, where the number of choices intersects with the ticking clock of decision-making. Will you confidently place your order, or will the abundance of options lead you into a decision-making puzzle?

What is Hicks Law?

In very simple terms, Hick’s Law describes that when users have more choices, it takes them longer to decide.

Nowadays, people are overwhelmed by innumerable options. What was once a simple question, e.g., to choose between black coffee or milk, has now become a complex decision-making process. 

Hick's Law, also known as Hick-Hyman Law, is a design concept created by British and American psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman. In trying to understand how the number of things to consider affects how quickly someone reacts, they came up with an equation: RT = a + b log2 (n).

Breaking it down:

  • RT is the reaction time.
  • 'a' is the time not linked to decision-making.
  • 'b' is a constant (around 0.155 seconds for humans) based on the time it takes to think about each option.
  • log2 is a mathematical function.
  • '(n)' is the number of equally likely choices.

Let's consider a practical example using the Hick's Law equation:

RT = a + b log2 (n)

Imagine you're at a restaurant, and the waiter hands you a menu with different categories: appetizers, mains, desserts, and drinks. The reaction time (RT) to make a decision (e.g., choosing a main course) can be analyzed using Hick's Law.

  • RT: Reaction Time (the time it takes for you to make a decision)
  • a: Time not involved in decision-making (e.g., physically moving your hand to point to a menu item)
  • b: An empirically derived constant based on cognitive processing time (let's assume
  • b is 0.155 seconds for this example)
  • log2 (n): The logarithm function of the number of equally probable alternatives (n) you have to choose from
Now, let's say you have eight equally probable main course options (n=8).

RT = a + (0.155) log⁡2 (8)

RT = a + (0.155) × 3

RT = a + 0.465

This simplified example illustrates that as the number of choices (n) increases, your reaction time (RT) also increases. The constant b reflects the additional cognitive time needed to process each option. In this case, with 8 main course options, the reaction time increases by 0.465 seconds, capturing the essence of Hick's Law. It emphasizes the relationship between the number of choices and the time it takes to make a decision.

Imagine if there were four main course options instead of eight. When you have fewer options to consider, making a decision becomes easier because there is less information overload. In this case, it is more likely that a person will make a better decision and will be happy with it.

Why does Hick’s Law work?

Hick's Law is based on how our brains work. There are two concepts that can explain why Hick’s Law works:

  • Cognitive Load:

When we use a product, our short-term memory, also called working memory, stores the information needed for decisions. But working memory can only hold so much. If there are too many choices, our brains can't remember everything for the decision. When we have many options, we try to think about each one before deciding. But as the choices increase, it gets harder to process and decide because our brains get more loaded with information.

Each additional option requires mental processing, contributing to decision-making complexity. Hick's Law recognizes that cognitive resources are finite, and more options can overwhelm the decision-maker.

  • Decision Fatigue:

Hick's Law is closely tied to the concept of decision fatigue. With an abundance of choices, individuals may experience mental exhaustion, making it harder for them to arrive at a decision. The law acknowledges that decision-making efficiency decreases as the decision-maker is confronted with more alternatives.

How can you use Hick’s Law?

  • Reduce choice complexity
  • Create categories 
  • Give personalized recommendations 
  • Break down complex processes into smaller pieces
  • Heatmaps

  • Reduce choice complexity:
Making decisions is easier when there are fewer choices. To simplify things, limit the options or let buyers use filters to narrow their choices.

Netflix does this effectively by implementing the concept of reducing choices for easier decision-making. When you log in, you're presented with a curated selection based on your viewing history and preferences, minimizing the overwhelming number of choices compared to showing their entire library upfront. Additionally, they have filters where a user can select what types of genres they would like to watch.

  • Create categories:

If your menu has many items, organize them into categories. Having categories, even if there are quite a few, helps people structure their thoughts. 

Let’s take Netflix again (they are nailing at Hick’s Law), they have divided their various content into different categories, like: “Top 10 Movies Today”, “New Release”, etc. These categories reduce choice complexity and response time by making it easier for viewers to choose which content they want to consume first.

  • Give personalized recommendations:
Your customers care about finding products that help them, not every little detail about every product you offer. They just want to know which products solve their specific problems.

To help them, use their interests and activities to suggest related products. Take Amazon, for example. They have a special section on each product page with personalized recommendations. They also make buying easier by showing the total cost upfront when customers want to purchase a set of three books, for example. This way, customers don't have to go through the hassle of adding each book separately to see how much they would cost all together. Amazon simplifies the process, making it easy for customers to discover exactly what they'd like to read next from their extensive book collection.

  • Break down complex processes into smaller pieces:
To make your website user-friendly, simplify complicated tasks like the checkout process. Break them into smaller, easy-to-handle steps, following Hick's Law.

Imagine buying something online, and instead of one long form, you see a few simple steps on separate screens. This is like what Ikea does with their checkout—three easy steps to follow. Breaking down the process this way makes it less boring and more likely that people will finish buying what they want. It's called progressive disclosure, and it's all about making things simple and easy.

  • Heatmaps:

Attention heatmaps can be a smart way to apply Hick’s Law. These heatmaps show you what elements on your website or store are not getting much attention. You can then choose to remove the unnecessary material and declutter. This can help your users skim through your website better or make faster purchases in your store.  

A perfect example of this would be expoze.io. It’s an AI-based tool that predicts attention and generates heatmaps showcasing where the user's attention is displayed and how much attention particular elements in your website or creative will get. All you have to do is upload an image or video of your website, store shelf, or whatever you want to predict attention for. It will analyze the upload and give you the result. Simple as that! 

As you can see in the image below, a heatmap was created, which shows where the viewer’s attention is predicted to go. This is Daily Mail’s homepage, which seems to be cluttered with many different types of information and ads. Through the heatmap, you can see what parts of the website are getting the most attention, and accordingly, you can choose to put the necessary information there. To apply Hick’s Law, the areas in your website that are not getting much attention can be decluttered to enhance the website's look and make it less overwhelming for viewers. Through this trial and error, you can easily apply Hick’s Law with scientific validation! 

Additionally, you can also conduct A/B testing to predict for maximum attention via expoze.io

Conclusion

By curating choices and offering personalized suggestions, we transform decision-making from a marathon into a sprint. Maximize Hick's Law to enhance user experiences. Applying this principle in design optimizes decision-making, reduces cognitive load, and engages users effectively.

By simplifying choices, streamlining processes, and emphasizing key recommendations, we create not just efficient designs but seamless and satisfying experiences. As we navigate the digital landscape, let Hick's Law be our guide, transforming complexity into clarity and ensuring that every interaction is a step toward user satisfaction and success.

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