Category: UX advice / Research articles

How many steps should be in a user flow?

Defining the flows or processes users need to go through is an important part of UX design and thinking in flows is something that separates people working in UX from more traditional areas like graphic design. When creating them from scratch it can be hard to know when you’ve got everything in the flow. There’s a question that I’ve had a lot whilst teaching the subject: how many steps/pages should be in it?

Like most things in online business and UX design, there’s no absolutely right answer to the length of a user flow. The best definition I’ve come up with, which seems to work for many types of product, is as follows:

“As simple as possible for them to reach their goal, whilst getting all the information you and they need.”

If you were hoping for a number, like ‘five’ then this obviously needs a bit more explaining, so let’s unpack this further:

1. Reach their goal

First, define the goal. The goal is something that will be core to the business succeeding and key to the website existing. In most cases with online business, the goal is for a user to either buy something, sign up, or fill in a contact form.

For a harmonious business it will be something that both you and the user are aligned on (a user needs to buy something that you want to sell). If not then you can end up with problems. For an extreme adversarial example: most people use Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family, while Facebook want users to spend more time on the platform and to click adverts, whatever the cost. This has caused any number of unexpected side effects.

To build trust it should be clear what users are getting at the end and how every step feeds into that goal. For example, why do users have to go through the hassle of searching? It should be obvious that at the end of the search will be a result to solve their needs.

2. All the information you need

This is the main thing businesses and designers think about when putting together their user flows: what do we need from the user? In a minimal sign up flow the company would require only an email address but it can be a lot more.

If you’re selling something complex like car insurance then the reality is you’re going to need lots of details from them to supply an accurate quote, e.g. the driver’s age, where they live, the age of the car etc. A first step for defining the size of your flow would be to list out all of the information that you require and group them into sensible topic areas.

These groupings would start to define the length of the flow. In the car insurance example, questions about the user would make sense to put on one page, whilst questions about the vehicle would sit on another. If you have only five to ten questions in total then you could keep it to a single page but as information starts to increase, group related things together.

3. All the information they need

Often designers first think about what they need from the user and don’t spend enough time considering all of the things that a user needs to know. The process the user goes through should leave them satisfied that they understand exactly what they are buying or signing up for.

Are your users booking a holiday? Then they’re going to have lots of questions before feeling ready to book, like arrival times, how meals work, and what to do in the local area. Have you made that easily accessible from the main flow? If not, they’re going to be contacting you to ask you those questions or at worst they will give up and go somewhere else.

Again, list out everything that you can think of that a user will want to know, and group them into related areas of information. Between this and your list from the last step you now have two checklists to work through as you design your flow.

If you already have a website, customer service enquiries are a great way to find out what you haven’t made clear to users. If the same things are coming up again and again you should make sure it appears on your flow pages.

Typically you’ll want to give users their required information before you ask for anything—this way they know that they’ll be getting what they want. But if there’s lots to tell them then you might consider holding back some details until it’s more relevant. For example, giving out detailed directions to find a hotel after they’ve booked.

4. As simple as possible

If you want to maximise the chances of a user completing your flow then you don’t want to keep people hanging around any longer than needed. Keep it easy to complete, and generally as short as possible.

This doesn’t necessarily mean cram everything onto as few pages as possible, but it does mean that everything needs to justify its place. In a sign-up flow this means not asking them for superfluous information that you only want to know for your own interests or marketing. Only throw marketing questions after they’ve reached their goal and if you really need that data.

Technology can really help with keeping your flows on the simple side as they can save users from inputting lots of information. This can be where native apps have a great advantage: for example you can infer information from their location, save previous details, use the camera to take photos of credit cards, etc.

Finally, be careful of stripping out information for the sake of it: if you skip some questions on an insurance product to make it easier on the user you could give inaccurate prices, which is no good to either party. The user would be in for a surprise when it turns out the price has to go up and misleading people is never good practice for long term business success.

Putting it all together

As I’ve explained, there’s unfortunately no single answer to the question in the title of this article. However there are four things to keep in mind that will help you whatever flow you’re designing.

When it comes to drawing it up, I recommend always start with your goal and work backwards from that. This helps to keep that as the focus. Then as described above, list out everything you and the user need to know and then combine and boil them down where possible.

If in doubt, don’t be afraid of making your flow long: ten simple steps are preferable to one complex step.

Last updated on 6 November 2019
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