Hick’s law is named after William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, two psychologists that in 1952 studied the relationship between the number of choices and the time required for a person to make a decision. They found out immediately, of course, that the time needed for a choice to be made increases with the amount and the complexity of the possibilities a user has to interact with.
Hick’s law states that:
“The time required to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices”.
A straightforward example is when in a restaurant we find ourselves checking the menu for something to eat. The more dishes to choose from, the more time required to make a decision. Hick’s law is present every time we have a series of cognitive evaluations to make. The amount of time taken to process a certain amount of choices in the Hick–Hyman law is known as the rate of gain of information.
However, this law applies only to cases where a choice is actually required.
For example, if we were to choose from a menu with different voices, knowing exactly what we are looking for, Hick’s law would not apply, no matter the number of choices. We would just be searching the list and ignoring whatever is not the “right one”.
The goal of Hick’s law is not to eliminate the process of choosing, it is instead about putting down the right number of choices, avoiding an overwhelming amount of material for the user. Separating useful material from the less important one is the primary reason behind this law.
As we design a website, we have to keep in mind that more choices mean more time required. This, of course, can represent a challenge for every designer, so we must not forget the importance of the “K.I.S.S. Principle” (Keep It Simple, Stupid), one of the first rule of UX design which is a paraphrase of Hick’s law It is also important to keep in mind that some amount of complexity can’t be avoided.
So, when presenting a series of options to choose from, Hick’s Law can definitely help us make life easier for users by simplifying their decision-making process. However, Hick’s Law is just a guideline to adapt to your own design style but always try to bear in mind the balance between complexity needed in a website in order to work and the user’s comfort zone.