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Starting off with the textbook or Wikipedia definition: A heuristic evaluation is a usability inspection method for computer software that helps to identify usability problems in the user interface (UI) and user interface (UX) design. It specifically involves evaluators examining the interface and judging its compliance with the recognized 10 usability principles called ‘The Heuristics’, originally defined by Jakob Nielson in 1994. I will list out and elaborate on these principles further into the article.

Although these principles can be modified depending on the products and evaluators they are the basis of all UX and UI tests that a product has to pass to give its users a good overall experience and be potentially successful.

Why Heuristic Evaluation?

The finest way to grade a product’s user experience or usability is by user testing it, which although consumes more resources, it does produce the best results. User feedbacks are pricey and interpreting them is also time-consuming and not all businesses with user centered products have deep pockets to spend on this luxury. In such cases Heuristic Evaluation of your product helps in minimizing the usability problems with a much lower consumption of your limited resources.

The core reason to perform a heuristic analysis is to improve the usability of a digital product. Another reason is efficiency, “efficiency” is the speed with which a product can be used as a direct consequence of better usability. “Usability” refers to quality components such as learnability, discoverability, memorability, flexibility, user satisfaction, and the handling of errors. A product’s UX is greatly improved when these components are delivered at a high quality.

Studies also show how effective can these thumb rules actually be at discovering the usability issues. A team of five usability experts would be able to discover 81% of the problems during an evaluation process. Although it’s important to remember the fact that such high percentage of success is possible only when the evaluation is performed by the experts and varies as per the evaluator’s expertise and experience.

The Heuristics

The Heuristics, laid out by the Jacob Nielson in 1994 have continued to evolve over the years. Below are the ones he originally wrote about in 1994.

1. Visibility of System Status

Provide users timely and appropriate feedback about the system’s status.

Example: If it takes a long time to load a screen, display a progress bar and/or an estimate of the time it may take to load, so users know what to expect.

2. Match between System and the Real World

Speak the user’s language using terms and concepts that are familiar to the intended audience. Information should be organized naturally and logically based on what users are accustomed to seeing in the real world.

Example: When designing a website for children, use terms with which they are familiar and display information in formats they are used to seeing.

3. User Control and Freedom

Users should experience perceived control as they interact with the system.

Example: Provide the functionality to Undo and Redo actions and to easily exit the system.

4. Consistency and Standards

User controls, icons, terminology, and error messaging should be consistent throughout the interface. Where appropriate, industry and platform standards should be applied.

Example: Use icons with which people are familiar, rather than creating new designs that mean the same thing.

5. Error Prevention

Prevent user errors by user-testing the interface to identify problem areas for typical users and re-designing it to more clearly communicate the consequences of users’ actions. When deleting information that may be difficult to recreate, offer users a confirmation to delete the data. Additionally, provide the ability to undo actions that users could accidentally commit and, consequently, lose important information.

Example: If a user cancels her account, offer her a way to re-establish the account within a certain time period.

6. Recognition Rather Than Recall

Reduce the memory load of users by presenting familiar icons, actions, and options whenever possible. Do not require the user to recall information from one screen to another. Use mouse-over tooltips to describe the functionality of icons which may be unfamiliar.

Example: On a web form, allow easy access to previously entered information, such as serial numbers, so the user does not need to recall the information or write it down.

7. Flexibility and Efficiency of Use

Novice and expert users use systems differently. The system should be easy and efficient to use by novices and experts alike. Provide “accelerators” for expert users to more efficiently navigate your application to complete the most frequent tasks.

Example: An accelerator can be a keystroke shortcut, such as Macintosh’s Command+Q to quit an application.

8. Aesthetic and Minimalist Design

Avoid displaying excessive information and design elements, as they will visually compete with more relevant information on the screen.

Example: Background graphics can make viewing text difficult.

9. Help Users Recognise, Diagnose, and Recover from Errors

Present error messages that give users instructions about how to recover from an error, rather than cryptic codes that users do not understand.

Example: If the user enters an invalid email address on a web form that requests the address, the error message could read, “That email address is not in our records. Please enter an email address in this format: email@address.com.”

10. Help and Documentation

It is usually best to design an interface to be so simple to use that Help and Documentation is unnecessary; however, there may be times when it is necessary to access Help. In those cases, Help documentation and user support should be easy to search, and instructions should be easy to follow.

Example: If there is not enough reason to produce an entire Help section, and there are a couple form fields that may be confusing to some users, it is appropriate to include “in-line help” in the form of a link that opens a small help dialogue next to the form field.

In addition to these 10 heuristics, there are others such as the list of six Design Principles for Usability by Don Norman, and the 20 Usability Heuristics by Susan Weinschenk and Dean Barker listed below. There is even a set that contains no less than 247 Web Usability Guidelines by Dr. David Travis !

Performing a Heuristic Analysis

Preparation is key to running the analysis well. The whole process can be divided in 3 parts with subheads under each. Following an established set of steps ensures that a heuristic analysis will run efficiently and yield maximum results.

PLANNING

Defining the scope of your analysis.

On both large and small projects, budgets may be limited. This may be the case on large e-commerce sites: For example, it may not be feasible to examine the entire site, as it could take a very long time and therefore become too expensive.

Parameters may be set to examine only the most crucial areas of the site. The limited budget will only have the capacity to focus on specific user flows and functionalities, such as log in/register, search and browse, product detail pages, shopping cart, and checkout. This way, almost all the UI and UX problems, which may critically affect the usage, can be rectified.

Knowing the business requirements and behavior of the end-users.

First, the evaluators should understand the business needs of the product/system. Second, as with any typical user-centered design process, it’s crucial to know the users. To facilitate heuristic analysis, specific user personas must be established, like- Are the end-users novices or experts? What are the user demographics? Although heuristics were meant to work as universal usability standards, special emphasis needs to be placed on accessibility for an older or regionally specific audience.

EXECUTING

Deciding the reporting tools and heuristics to be used by the evaluators.

It’s incredibly important to decide which set of heuristics the evaluators are going to use. A selected set of heuristics will provide common guidelines against which each of the experts can make their evaluation, as well as ensure that they are all on the same page. Without it, the heuristic analysis process could fall into utter chaos — produce inconsistent, conflicting reports and ultimately become ineffective.

Evaluating the experience and identifying issues.

When a heuristic evaluation is performed with a group of experts, each individual must evaluate the UI separately. This approach to the expert review will ensure the evaluations will be independent and unbiased. When all the evaluations are complete, the findings are then collated and aggregated.

In order to run the evaluation efficiently, it’s well advised to use an “observer.” It may add a little overhead to the evaluation sessions, but is definitely worth it keeping in mind the advantages. The observer participates in every session and handles taking the notes, so is able to deliver one consolidated report at the end of the evaluation process.

In order to help the team move toward design solutions, findings must describe the issues precisely. Vague notes such as “this layout will slow down the registration process” are not at all productive. Notes need to be specific and clearly identify the heuristic that the issue violates. For example: “During checkout, the UI layout is confusing, inconsistent and violates the rules of user control, feedback and consistency (#1, #20, #16)

REVIEWING

Analyzing and presenting the results

At the conclusion of a heuristic analysis, the evaluation manager — or observer — carries out some housekeeping and organization such as removing duplicates and collating the findings. The observer then aggregates the heuristic evaluation reports and builds a table that includes the severity ratings of usability issues and from which the design team can prioritize and start working on fixing them. An important but easily missed issue can be visibility or a discoverability problem.

Final Thoughts

Heuristic analysis doesn’t necessarily provide fixes to usability issues, nor does it guarantee the success of your product. However, because a heuristic evaluation compares the UI against a set of known usability heuristics, in most cases it is remarkably easy to identify the solution to a specific problem and come up with a more compelling design.

It must be mentioned that even though heuristic analyses are definitely a solid way to identify usability problems regarding digital products, they should not be relied upon as the only source of data. If possible, in order to achieve optimal results, heuristic analysis should be combined with cognitive walkthroughs and one-on-one user testing. And that should produce awesome product designs.

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