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How A Heuristic Evaluation Can Elevate Your Design Process

Think of it as a rule of thumb rather than specific guidelines.

by Tabitha Foster, UX Designer

Illustration of a person with thought bubbles displaying various tasks and desires.

Image Courtesy by Stuart Braidwood.

Anyone fresh to the UX world may find each new term, definition, and concept overwhelming. Not sure where to start? An essential method for your UX toolbox is a heuristic evaluation. As explained by the Interaction Design Board, a heuristic evaluation is an engineering method for finding usability problems in a user interface design, thereby making them addressable and solvable as part of an iterative design process.

In short, UX experts use heuristic evaluations to catch and solve usability problems in their products early on in the design process.

10 usability heuristics — explained

The quintessential checklist is Jakob Neilson’s 10 Usability Heuristics. Neilson, recognized as the “Guru of Usable Web Pages” by the New York Times, states that these are by no means specific guidelines but rules of thumb for designers to use to help their UX process.

1. Visibility of System Status

Always keep users informed about what is going on and provide appropriate feedback within a reasonable time.

2. Match Between System & The Real World

Speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. As well, follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.

3. User-control & Freedom

Provide a clearly marked “out” to leave an unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Supporting undo and redo is also critical.

4. Consistency and Standards

Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. To achieve this, follow platform conventions.

5. Error Prevention

Even better than good error messages is a careful design that prevents a problem from occurring in the first place.

6. Recognition Rather Than Recall

Make objects, actions, and options visible — users should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Likewise, instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

7. Flexibility and Efficiency of Use

Accelerators (unseen by the novice user) may often speed up the interaction for the expert user so that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. To do this, allow users to tailor frequent actions.

8. Aesthetic & Minimalist Design

Dialogues should not contain information that is irrelevant or rarely needed. Remember that every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.

9. Help Users Recognize, Diagnose & Recover from Errors

Errors must be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

10. Help & Documentation

Even though it’s better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Help information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

How do I perform a heuristic evaluation?

You’ll want to have a few UX experts perform an evaluation. One UX designer might notice usability issues that another doesn’t, so it’s best to have two–five UX designers evaluate the product. To ensure consistency across all evaluations, you should establish a template report. This template will help your fellow UX designers ensure their findings are based on the same usability heuristics system as well as organizing their findings in the same way as everyone else. This will make it easier for you to compile the results into an organized report to share with the team.

Step 1: Evaluate your design

Go through each element you’re evaluating, explaining the issues in relation to the 10 Usability Heuristics by Jakob Nielson. These elements can range depending on your overall goal of the report, such as walking through a specific task and evaluating its usability, a section of the product or the entire thing. Be sure to use screenshots to provide examples/visuals of the issues you’re discussing in your findings.

Step 2: Summarize your suggestions

Summarize your suggestions on improving the usability based on your evaluation results. You might find providing screenshots or images of your possible solutions to the issues you found in your evaluation provide more context to your suggestions. This all depends on how long you’re giving yourself and your fellow UX designers to complete this evaluation and just how in-depth you want your feedback to be.

Step 3: Report your findings

Compile all of your findings into a well-organized report and present them to the team. This can be done through Google Docs, a branded PDF report, or a spreadsheet. Make sure your report is easy to understand not only for yourself but for anyone who will be reading the report, such as product owners, developers, and clients.

In conclusion

A heuristic evaluation by no means replaces usability testing but can elevate your product design process and allow for insightful findings that might’ve been glazed over without it. Remember, the 10 usability heuristics are a rule of thumb to evaluate your design. After summarizing your suggestions and crafting your report, use your findings to guide the metrics for your usability tests — and ensure the success of your product design.