Heuristic evaluations are extremely effective in identifying potential issues. However, these evaluations are just one part of your product design cycle.
By Wendy Eichenbaum
How many times have you made changes to a document and then selected close before saving it? Did you lose your data? Most likely you did not. Instead, the UI displayed a warning message prompting you to save your changes. However, if the application only had discarded your changes, the application would have violated a usability heuristic.
A usability heuristic is principal of good UX design. If any part of a website or software application violates a principal, then users are likely to be confused and frustrated.
A heuristic evaluation is the process to identify areas in a website or application that violate the principals. This process was developed by Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich back in the early 1990’s. They devised a set of 10 heuristics, and a rating scale to assess the urgency of an issue. This way product teams could prioritize the issues. These are not the only heuristics and ratings scales used today. A longer list of 20 by Weinschenk and Barker is well recognized.
A heuristic evaluation is a fast and relatively inexpensive way to identify potential issues. And it can help you refine your best ideas before you run usability tests, which take more time and budget.
To run an evaluation, first identify a task and the target audience. The knowledge gap may vary between your different audiences, so what is an issue for some will not be for others.
Then gather 3-5 people, a mix of domain experts and UX professionals. This is the ideal opportunity to include team members who often are not part of the design process, such as developers or QA. They provide unique perspectives. And these members will get a much better understanding of the target audience.
For the first part, each person independently steps through the task to determine if any part of the task violates a heuristic. And the person rates the severity of the violation.
Then the group convenes to review all of the findings. From this, they can compile a complete list of issues with severity ratings that can be used to drive the re-design schedule.
If you are running very short on time and budget, you could run this evaluation with just one UX professional who has domain knowledge. And then the UX professional would share the results with the team. Just keep in mind that Nielsen recommended 3-5 reviewers because one individual won’t find all of the issues.
What does it look like to identify a heuristic violation? Let’s say that you closed a document, and your application discarded your changes without asking you if you wanted to save the changes. The application would have violated the heuristic “error prevention.” A good design prevents a problem before it occurs. Users should not lose data because they forgot to save.
Or let’s say that you sent out a meeting notice. But you can’t tell who has accepted the invite. This would violate the heuristic “visibility of system status.” A good design provides appropriate feedback. The UI did not tell the user who could attend the meeting.
Heuristic evaluations are extremely effective in identifying potential issues. However, these evaluations are just one part of your product design cycle. They cannot replace the feedback from your customers in a usability test. Nor can you judge how satisfied your customers will feel performing this task. But they will enable you to refine your designs so your customers test your best ideas.
About the Author
Wendy Eichenbaum has been a UX professional since the early-1990’s. She began her career as a technical writer. She then earned a Master of Arts in Professional Writing at Carnegie Mellon University, studying both writing and UI design. Over the years, she has worked across verticals, from start-ups to multi-national firms, in many areas of UX including research & strategy, Information Architecture, usability testing, and focus groups. She started her own UX consulting firm in 2008, Ucentric Design. And she is an adjunct professor at Cal State University, Fullerton. There she teaches a class that she created, User-Centered Design for Web and Mobile Interfaces.