I Was Wrong: UX Myths

September 24, 2010

Posted in Design and Web Industry.

Photo 4.jpg.jpg

In 2009 I wrote about cognitive load and asked the question, “If users have a working memory limit of approximately seven items, how can you justify twelve global navigation options?”

I’ve been meaning to revisit this, almost since I wrote it. Because I was wrong.

I’ve read more about cognitive load and had a chance to discuss it with some psychologists. Because users don’t have to memorize your navigation, and because they tend to select the first viable option rather than reviewing all choices and then making the optimal selection (this is known as “satisficing”), the seven item “rule” doesn’t apply. Of course, you still have to understand what your visitors’ key tasks will be and help make those possible.

My recent post about trusting research over opinions reminded me that there actually is research behind many of these discussions. Fortunately, there are usability and user experience bloggers helping us find that research.

UXMyths wrote an article citing a number of studies and discussions about the 7 item (+/- 2) rule, which seals the deal for me. Let’s go back to the research.


  1. Cody — September 24, 2010

    I basically agree with the premise, but the UX Myth page misstates the research. For example,

    link-rich e-commerce homepages … are found to be more usable than homepages with only a few links.

    That’s not correct, the research says that some e-commerce pages do well, but …

    The teams at Staples, Analog, and McMaster-Carr spent tremendous resources learning how their users thought about their content, through extensive site visits, interviews, and usability testing.

    As well, UX Myth states

    … research shows that broad and shallow menu structures generally work better than deeper menus

    but the article that it links to says…

    … additional critical factors are: the transparency of the category and sub-category labels, qualities of information scent, relative size of categories, and the shape of the hierarchy.

    So it blows the “7 (+/- 2) rule” out of the water, but more options aren’t necessarily better.

  2. Zoltán Gócza — October 10, 2010


    I don’t think we’ve mistaken the research, let me answer your remarks:

    As to your first comment: The examples of Staples, Analog, and McMaster-Carr aren’t counterexamples, they indeed support that link-rich homepages perform well. The article says: “Yet, other sites have demonstrated that link-rich designs can work…” Please recheck the article.

    And for the second: I agree that there are other factors to menu design and you shouldn’t just put out myriads of links mindlessly. But the point still is that broader menus are shown to work better (up to a limit, of course). Which is an important finding because people, in the name of simplicity, tend to prefer menus with very few elements, even on an intranet.