An Introduction to Usability Heuristic Evaluations

You walk into work on Monday morning, and you’re greeted by the VP of Sales who tells you that your new product (mobile app, web service, etc) is not user-friendly and it’s killing sales, so now you’re tasked with figuring out how to fix it yesterday without any additional budget. What do you do?

The fastest and simplest tool you can pull out at a moment like this is the usability heuristic evaluation! A usability heuristic evaluation is something a team or individual can do on a product to find major usability issues quickly. It’s an effective tool when you need a quick turnaround and have limited resources to get outside input as it provides a framework for focus on, and will help you find the glaring issues. A more full usability review is still a very worthwhile investment, but this will get you started. Before we get into the parts of the evaluation, let’s look at how a few people have defined it:

Heuristic Evaluation…is a discount method for quick, cheap, and easy evaluation of the user interface. The process requires that a small set of testers (or “evaluators”) examine the interface, and judge its compliance with recognised usability principles (the “heuristics”). The goal is the identification of any usability issues so that they can be addressed as part of an iterative design process. (source)

Heuristic evaluation is a form of usability inspection where usability specialists judge whether each element of a user interface follows a list of established usability heuristics (source)

Also before you can jump in and do your evaluation, you need to make sure you’ve got the right constraints set for it. Specifically you’ll want to have already defined what the purpose, objectives, audience, user task, and other constraints for your website or product.

Now that you’ve got a clear idea of what the product should do and for whom, it’s time to set the scope of the evaluation. This will be useful because if it will keep you from getting sidetracked by a bug and instead help you focus for example on how the error is handled and displayed to the user.

Nielsen recommends 10 different criteria for heuristic evaluations: status and feedback, relevance and familiarity, control and freedom, error prevention, error handling, help, consistency, recognition vs recall, flexibility and customization, and pleasant simplicity. I’ll write a separate post with examples of each of these, but for now let’s just look at one example of “control and freedom.”

In Gmail after you hit “Send” to an email it gives you an option to undo sending your message for a few seconds. This simple feature (adding in a minor delay before actually sending the email) like this allows the user to have a greater degree of control and freedom. Also they avoid using a “are you sure” prompt which users inevitably just get in the habit of saying “yes” to without thinking.

gmail-undo-send

Clearly Google thought about their users in this case and how they want to have “control and freedom” in how their emails go out. Have you done a heuristic evaluation of your product yet?

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