My Variation of Hick’s Law

by on 06/29/10 at 11:09 am

I don’t know if it’s just me, but it feels like efficiency is often underestimated. People focus on outcome and results so much that they forget that the means to the end is just as important. For example, when I’m at a restaurant looking at a menu that has a myriad of choices and I can’t decide what I want, it not only takes me a while to decide, but I worry about making the wrong choice and later regretting it. The same thing happens to people when they are at a website and there’s a myriad of links in the menu to choose from. It not only takes them much longer to decide, but the probability of error increases when they are faced with too many choices.

Hick’s Law states that the time it takes to make a decision increases as the number of alternatives increases.  There’s an element to Hick’s Law that it does not bring attention to.  There is a lot of emotional stress that comes when people are overwhelmed with too many choices. People can worry about making the wrong choice, worry about not understanding the differences of each choice or worry that they are spending far too much time figuring out what to choose.  Thus, Hick’s Law doesn’t just deal with minimizing response times and error rates, but it deals with minimizing emotional stress as well.

Another element to Hick’s Law is the element of distinction.  A widespread habit I see on websites are the many options of closely related menu titles in the navigation. This careless mistake people make can cause confusion and inefficiency for users. When the name of a section in the menu is too closely related to the name of another section it can slow user decision-making down and cause users to wonder and question what makes one section of the site different from another. The name you use for each section in your navigation menu should be distinctly different.  If they are the least bit similar, you could risk decreasing user efficiency.

I would like to apply my variation to Hick’s Law. The new Hick’s Law (Anthony’s Law) states that the time and emotional energy it takes to make a decision increases as the number of indistinct alternatives increases.

My Variation of Hick’s Law My Variation of Hick’s Law

Author and editor-in-chief of UX Movement. Loves great web experiences and fights for the user.

7 Responses to “My Variation of Hick’s Law”

  1. Vitorio

    Jul 9th, 2010

    I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean by “rewrite Hick’s Law and apply my variation to it.” “Hick’s Law” isn’t a catchy quote about decision-making that was arbitrarily invented and written down. It came out of scientific research (dating back to 1868 according to Wikipedia), and repeatable experiments were done to validate it. Hick’s Law is an equation.

    As a result, by “rewrite” do you actually mean “I intend to perform experiments to validate my hypothesis that emotional stress [clinical explanation needed] and distinction [uniqueness?] affect decision making time?” I assume your hypothesis would be more thoroughly described, if so.

    However, Hick’s Law already takes into account emotional stress. As it turns out (again according to Wikipedia), a raw value has “1″ added to it “because there is uncertainty about whether to respond or not, as well as about which response to make.” Distinctness is also sort-of already covered, in that if a list will take linear time (one imagines a visually indistinct word list is functionally similar to a randomly ordered one), Hick’s Law does not apply.

    Perhaps “Principle #2″ should instead be “Learn about Hick’s Law?”

    • anthony

      Jul 10th, 2010

      You’re half right. Hick’s Law is indeed scientific research made into a mathematical equation, but it is also a PRINCIPLE widely used today. See the original principle at the bottom of the article.

      Keep in mind you’re at a BLOG, not a SCIENCE LAB. If this was for the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 1953 then I’d probably conduct an experiment like Hick did, but it’s not, so I won’t.

      The original Hick’s Law does NOT take into account emotional stress or choice uniqueness at all. Hick’s Law simply deals with the relationship between REACTION TIME and NUMBER OF CHOICES.
      My variation states that as the number of choices goes up the amount of EMOTIONAL ENERGY (not just time) needed to make the decision also goes up. Thus, the user experience is affected even more. It’s also stating that the more SIMILAR your choices are the longer it takes to make a decision due to the lack of choice distinctiveness.

      The most important thing about these principles is to understand the underlying CONCEPT.

  2. dental hygienist

    Jul 15th, 2010

    Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

  3. Autism Symptoms

    Jul 26th, 2010

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  4. Mathew Sanders

    Aug 29th, 2010

    You should read Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman (, you will love it :)

  5. David Law

    Feb 10th, 2012

    Great read. There is actually already a thread of research based off of Hick’s Law about “stimulus discriminability”; the research psychologist’s fancy way of saying basically what you said, that if the choices being presented are difficult to distinguish to boot, that also affects choice reaction time.

  6. jahim

    Jun 15th, 2012

    Good read, your response to the first comment also. I’m not sure I read enough of this in a UX/ usability context. It seems really valuable in understanding the ‘why’s of what may otherwise appear common sense.

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