What is Heuristic Evaluation?
Heuristic evaluation is a process where experts use rules of thumb to measure the usability of user interfaces in independent walkthroughs and report issues. Evaluators use established heuristics (e.g., Nielsen-Molich’s) and reveal insights that can help design teams enhance product usability from early in development.
“By their very nature, heuristic shortcuts will produce biases.”
— Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize-winning economist
Heuristic Evaluation: Ten Commandments for Helpful Expert Analysis
In 1990, web usability pioneers Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich published the landmark article “Improving a Human-Computer Dialogue”. It contained a set of principles—or heuristics—which industry specialists soon began to adopt to assess interfaces in human-computer interaction. A heuristic is a fast and practical way to solve problems or make decisions. In user experience (UX) design, professional evaluators use heuristic evaluation to systematically determine a design’s/product’s usability. As experts, they go through a checklist of criteria to find flaws which design teams overlooked. The Nielsen-Molich heuristics state that a system should:
- Keep users informed about its status appropriately and promptly.
- Show information in ways users understand from how the real world operates, and in the users’ language.
- Offer users control and let them undo errors easily.
- Be consistent so users aren’t confused over what different words, icons, etc. mean.
- Prevent errors – a system should either avoid conditions where errors arise or warn users before they take risky actions (e.g., “Are you sure you want to do this?” messages).
- Have visible information, instructions, etc. to let users recognize options, actions, etc. instead of forcing them to rely on memory.
- Be flexible so experienced users find faster ways to attain goals.
- Have no clutter, containing only relevant information for current tasks.
- Provide plain-language help regarding errors and solutions.
- List concise steps in lean, searchable documentation for overcoming problems.
Our Contact page exemplifies the 8thNielsen-Molich Heuristic of showing only relevant information for current tasks.
Heuristic Evaluation – for Easy-to-use, Desirable Designs
When you apply the Nielsen-Molich heuristics as an expert, you have powerful tools to measure a design’s usability with. However, like any method, there are pros and cons:
A vital point is that heuristic evaluation, however helpful, is no substitute for usability testing.
How to Conduct a Heuristic Evaluation
To conduct a heuristic evaluation, you can follow these steps:
- Know what to test and how – Whether it’s the entire product or one procedure, clearly define the parameters of what to test and the objective.
- Know your users and have clear definitions of the target audience’s goals, contexts, etc. User personas can help evaluators see things from the users’ perspectives.
- Select 3–5 evaluators, ensuring their expertise in usability and the relevant industry.
- Define the heuristics (around 5–10) – This will depend on the nature of the system/product/design. Consider adopting/adapting the Nielsen-Molich heuristics and/or using/defining others.
- Brief evaluators on what to cover in a selection of tasks, suggesting a scale of severity codes (e.g., critical) to flag issues.
- 1st Walkthrough – Have evaluators use the product freely so they can identify elements to analyze.
- 2nd Walkthrough – Evaluators scrutinize individual elements according to the heuristics. They also examine how these fit into the overall design, clearly recording all issues encountered.
- Debrief evaluators in a session so they can collate results for analysis and suggest fixes.
Learn More about Heuristic Evaluation
Several of our courses examine heuristic evaluation closely: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/the-practical-guide-to-usability and https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/information-visualization-infovis
This is essential reading regarding heuristic evaluation in mobile design: https://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2014/06/empirical-development-of-heuristics-for-touch-interfaces.php
What you might expect (or find surprising) from heuristic evaluation: https://uxmag.com/articles/what-you-really-get-from-a-heuristic-evaluation
Find the refined Nielsen heuristics here: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/
Here are a variety of heuristics to consider: https://uxmastery.com/how-to-run-an-heuristic-evaluation/
Literature on Heuristic Evaluation
Here’s the entire UX literature on Heuristic Evaluation by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Learn more about Heuristic Evaluation
Take a deep dive into Heuristic Evaluation with our course The Practical Guide to Usability .
Every product or website should be easy and pleasurable to use, but designing an effective, efficient and enjoyable product is hardly the result of good intentions alone. Only through careful execution of certain usability principles can you achieve this and avoid user dissatisfaction, too. This course is designed to help you turn your good intentions into great products through a mixture of teaching both the theoretical guidelines as well as practical applications surrounding usability.
Countless pieces of research have shown that usability is important in product choice, but perhaps not as much as users themselves believe; it may be the case that people have come to expect usability in their products. This growing expectation puts even more pressure on designers to find the sweet spot between function and form. It is meanwhile critical that product and web developers retain their focus on the user; getting too lost within the depths of their creation could lead to the users and their usability needs getting waylaid. Through the knowledge of how best to position yourself as the user, you can dodge this hazard. Thanks to that wisdom, your product will end up with such good usability that the latter goes unnoticed!
Ultimately, a usable website or product that nobody can access isn’t really usable. A usable website, for example, is often overlooked when considering the expansion of a business. Even with the grandest intentions or most “revolutionary” notions, the hard truth is that a usable site will always be the windpipe of commerce—if users can’t spend enough time on the site to buy something, then the business will not survive. Usability is key to growth, user retention, and satisfaction. So, we must fully incorporate it into anything we design. Learn how to design products with awesome usability through being led through the most important concepts, methods, best practices, and theories from some of the most successful designers in our industry with “The Practical Guide to Usability.”
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