On the web, Hick’s law is usually used to describe the usability/user experience of an app. The more choices a user has, the longer it will take to make a decision, so it is important to keep things simple to convert more visitors into users. Hick’s law can be applied and considered all around us though, it isn’t just something that applies to the web.
Whittle down the options
Given the choice of picking a doctor or dentist most people can get overwhelmed by the sheer number of them (I know I was). It could takes weeks to decide between ratings, services, location, hours, and insurance when considering 100 options. In this situation I have found the best route is to ask your neighbors, friends, and co-workers if they have any recommendations. This helps reduce the number of choices from hundreds down to a more manageable number of 5-10. Researching and picking from this set of 5-10 doctors is far easier and quicker than picking from that group of 100.
On the web
Applying the above example to building a web site/app would be to keep the options simple and to the point. It doesn’t mean make sure you only have xx amount of options, it means make sure the user can find what they need without overloading them with choices. This is most apparent to me with the concept of feature creep when developing. If you allow every feature request from users/clients to make their way into an application, you can very easily wind up with a product that has a confusing interface. If only one user has asked you to to add in calendar functionality you need to consider if the feature is something everyone can benefit from or if it is something the one user would. If it is just that one user then it may not be worth adding the calendar widget into the interface if it cannot be integrated in a seamless manner.
Hick’s law doesn’t just apply to buttons and options in a select list. It can also apply to the overall design. The reason Call to Actions work so well is because they are normally just a few options for the user to pick from before a user gets overwhelmed with the site navigation. Although applying Hick’s law to a site doesn’t necessarily mean to limit the number of choices overall, it can mean hiding options until a user has picked a path. This helps make sure the user doesn’t get flustered or inadvertently click on something they should not.
It is always interesting learning about how users interact with a site. For me a light turns on when I read something and then realize I do just that. Since I develop sites for a living I consider myself an advanced web user, I don’t need a lot of explanation to get a task done. So when I get confused I know it is either because I am over-thinking the situation or because it really just makes no sense. In both cases it can be a good idea to think back to the basics. How is the app going to be used? Will a normal user (a non power user) need all of the options, or did I only include those because I wanted them?