The word heuristic simply refers to a methodology that is inexact and based on learning through experience. A heuristic evaluation is a report in which a user experience expert reviews a system or interface against a predefined set of usability principles, also referred to as heuristic principles.
Personally, I don’t like the term. I find it to be rather confusing and in the UX discipline, we should be all about providing clarity. The evaluation itself can also be needlessly complicated when sticking to existing guidelines for things like the number of reviewers or the time allotted. Nonetheless, I believe that at its core the heuristic evaluation (or to use its simpler name, the expert review) is often underused and underappreciated.
Let’s break this down first by looking at the principles themselves. There are a couple of industry-accepted, time-honored lists out there (conveniently gathered here). But having originated in software development in the mid 90s, I believe anyone using this format should adapt the spirit of the originals to fit their own projects, teams, and clients.
Here is my list of usability principles.
- Speak your user’s language. – Consider what context they have and what they might not. Avoid jargon that may be unfamiliar and be sure to explain new terminology in plain language.
- Keep it organized and consistent. – It’s easier to understand new things when they follow a logical structure and hierarchy. Similar things should be grouped together. Things that look the same should act the same.
- Keep it clear and simple. – Avoid distractions. Eliminate unnecessary decisions. Don’t overload the user’s memory.
- Set expectations and provide wayfinding. – Users should always know where they are within an experience. Help users to make informed decisions on where to go next and avoid the need to move backward.
- Make it familiar and intuitive. – Don’t shy away from doing something because it’s been done before. Building on established conventions allows the focus to remain on your content, not how to interact with it.
- Allow for easy error correction. – Mistakes happen. Identify common or recurring problems and make them easy to fix. When situations are complicated, give someone a place to turn for help.
Note: If looking to create your own list, remember this exercise should be about adapting language and should remain true to the inarguable core principles that have been established over time. See the first principle on my list.
These may sound like common sense. They should. Creating experiences for the web—even seemingly small ones—requires expertise for multiple disciplines to come together. Design to development. SEO to copywriting. Analytics to architecture. These principles exist to provide perspective to work that isn’t always so straightforward. And they define what a foundation of good user experience looks like.
Using these principles to evaluate existing interface design and experiences should similarly be kept simple. All it requires is an expert to document issues and make corresponding recommendations grounded in the established principles. The expert is often someone in a user experience role, but can be from other or additional disciplines as well. The beauty of these principles is they can be just as relevant to a copywriter as they are to a developer.
The key to noting these issues and recommendations is that it be kept holistic. The feedback cannot be too deep into the details of any single view. Implementing any single recommendation should have an impact on the experience as a whole. After the issues and recommendations are listed, a rating of effort versus impact is often included to help prioritize next steps and implementation.
Planning for future challenges
Even without any type of formal evaluation these core usability principles can be used as a project is being planned to help predict the challenges to come. Again, they exist to give perspective and a foundation. I’ve found that words are often the most important element of any interface. Knowing an experience needs to speak your user’s language, before any interface or design even exists you could plan to address potential language issues by creating glossaries, running naming exercises, or defining new functionality to avoid potential issues before they exist.
Supporting design decisions
Design is collaborative. But people don’t always agree, points of view don’t always line up, and there can be more than one right solution to any problem. These principles can be used to help wrangle conflicting feedback or opinions and remove some subjectivity. Whether it’s creating a new page for wayfinding purposes or removing one to create consistency in structure, grounding rationale in established principles help make for a healthy debate.
Build on a foundation
The expert review, the view of informed individuals responsible for creating a digital experience, is one perspective, but it plays wells with others. Data-driven insights like A/B testing can be invaluable to inform what has been effective and what hasn’t across large groups. I absolutely appreciate the ever-growing amount of emphasis on data and an analytical perspective. User testing provides the human perspective from the outside. The people who are the entire reason we are creating the things we create. What they want, when, how often, and why.
But I firmly believe that gathering data or feedback from end users will be substantially more valuable when taken from an experience that aligns with the fundamental principles of usability.