Over the years, some of the rules-of-thumb have seeped through to the broader audience and are now widely used and abused. Some classic examples are: "Flash is Bad", "Frames Suck", "People don’t scroll!” and the most obstinate of them all must be "I should be able to find everything on a site in just three-clicks!".
The first two claims at least can be defended with reasoning and by the simple fact that Jakob Nielsen´s words are not to be disputed. The claims that user don´t scroll and that every page must be reached within three clicks are myths. There is no scientific proof or sound reasoning behind them.
In the case of scrolling, some 15 years ago many first time web users had to get used to content being spread out over a larger vertical area that needed scrolling to be viewed. Now, in 2010, it is not hard to assume that people learned how to use a mouse. Obviously, for advertising, being above the fold makes sense as more people will see your ad when landing on the page (where else are they going to look?). In the context of user tasks, users are willing to scroll, although they say they don't. Even Jakob Nielsen succumbed in 1997 and wrote that scrolling is now allowed.
My favorite myth is the Three-Click-Rule. In countless discussions with clients, management and developers I have heard this "argument" being used. I confess that I even shamelessly used it against others when it served me well. I have always kept my mouth shut when The Myth was used against me when designing e-commerce sites because it always made sort of sense to me to get that 12-piece knife set in gift wrapping as soon as possible in the basket and checked out before the customer changes her mind. And even in this case research has shown that The Myth does not hold true. User Interface Engineering (UIE) conducted an analysis showing that there wasn't any more likelihood of a user quitting their purchase process after three clicks than after 12 clicks. In the same analysis we can find that user satisfaction does not suffer with more clicks either: Fewer clicks do not make more satisfied users.
So, user frustration and success rates in task completion do not depend on the number of clicks. Nor do they rely on not having to scroll. What really matters is that users can find what they are looking for, which depends on many factors such as flow, layout, interaction and visual design. If users find what they are looking for in a logical (and therefore effortlessly reproducible & memorizable) manner, both success rates in task-completion and user satisfaction will be higher.
Most - if not all - of the research on these topics was conducted on web sites rather than applications but I suspect little difference in its applicability. In the case of business applications, such as ERP software, we need to be a little bit more careful because of the factor productivity. Productivity is output per unit which in most cases can be captured as work per time unit. This is where speed comes in. In our case, the speed of operation of the user is very important. It depends on the response time of the system and the user interface. The first is a purely technical matter; the second depends on the GUI design. I believe that the number of clicks and the amount of scrolling has little impact on the user productivity as long as the user has easy access to all information that is needed for the task at hand and all steps in the task flow are logical, predictable and reversible. Also: providing defaults, offering validation, saving preferences and supporting different modes of seeking information boosts user´s productivity.
If we look at an example of creating a sales order: Most of the time spent executing this task is spent on finding documents and entering and validating field values, either for headers or lines and in grids or forms. The time spent on clicking and scrolling is negligible compared to that. Making sure the user finds the right documents, processes, forms and fields and making sure that she performs the process steps in the right order without making mistakes is much more important.
Another great productivity enhancer is using keyboard shortcuts. Here the same applies: the amount of key presses is not very important, the underlying logic is.
There is nothing negative to be said against trying to minimize the amount of mouse clicking or scrolling, it even helps designers rethink their solutions and simplify process steps. They just should not be used as a rule or best practice. Let´s put these click and scroll myths to bed and start focusing on good design.
Photo courtesy of Thad Zajdowicz