As a UX design professional, you’ll want to have a number of different tools in your toolbox when evaluating the usability of a product. We’ve already talked about a few common UX research techniques on the Springboard blog, including personas and user flow. Heuristic evaluation is another important technique to keep in mind during the UX design process.
Here, we’ll answer all of your questions about heuristic evaluation in UX, including what heuristics are, which ones to use, and how to conduct an organized evaluation that delivers actionable insights.
What Is a Heuristic Evaluation?
Also known as a “usability inspection,” “expert review,” or “heuristic analysis,” a heuristic evaluation is conducted by a professional evaluator—not a real user.
In this kind of evaluation, a usability expert (such as yourself) evaluates how a product measures up to a list of UX best practices. These best practices are known as “heuristics.”
What Are the Limits of a Heuristic Evaluation?
Now that we’ve learned what a heuristic evaluation is, let’s talk about what it’s not.
While heuristic evaluation in UX is a useful tool, it’s no substitute for user testing. You’ll still need to test your product with real users to get a complete picture.
You also shouldn’t put too much pressure on yourself to perfect your interface. Remember, heuristics are just guidelines. It’s still important to iterate so that your design can evolve alongside user needs.
When Should You Conduct a Heuristic Evaluation in UX?
As with most things in user experience, it’s almost always cheaper and easier to conduct evaluations at the beginning of the development cycle. While they can be conducted at any stage of the design process, it makes sense to try to correct problems early on.
Luckily, UX heuristic evaluations should be a relatively easy sell to the stakeholders in your organization. This is because they are generally cheaper than user research and deliver a high return on investment. In fact, a well-known case study by Jakob Nielsen found that for a heuristic evaluation costing $10,500, the expected benefits were nearly 50 times greater ($500,000).
Which UX Heuristics Should You Use?
As previously mentioned, “heuristics” is just another word for “best practices.” So, who defines what the best practices are?
Although there is no single set of one-size-fits-all user experience heuristics, there are a few standards that are well-known in the industry. The following are some of the most common:
Nielsen’s Heuristics: The Gold Standard in UX
The most popular set of user experience heuristics currently in use was developed by Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich in 1990. These are known as “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design,” or sometimes simply “Nielsen’s Heuristics.”
On the Nielsen-Norman Group website, you can see the most recent version of Nielsen’s Heuristics.
Screenshot of Nielsen’s Heuristics. Source: Nielsen-Norman Group.
You can also find detailed explanations of each of the 10 user experience heuristics.
Other UX Heuristics
Of course, Nielsen’s Heuristics are not the only design standards out there. Many other relevant sets of UX heuristics exist. Here are just a few of the options:
Ben Shneiderman’s “Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design”
Published in 1985 in the text “Designing the User Interface,” Shneiderman’s rules for interactive systems include simple principles such as “strive for consistency,” “offer simple error handling,” and “permit easy reversal of actions.”
Lists like Shneiderman’s are useful because they are evergreen—they withstand the test of time. A good set of evergreen heuristics is based around a general understanding of human psychology, rather than specific facets of the technology used at the time.
“Guidelines for Designing User Interface Software” by Sidney Smith and Jane Mosier
Published in 1986 and funded by the U.S. Air Force, this is the largest collection of publicly available UI guidelines in existence, with 944 points included. The list is notable for its length, detail, and in-depth descriptions.
Screenshot of Smith and Mosier’s guidelines. Source: Human-Computer Interaction Bibliography.
Jill Gerhardt-Powal’s “Cognitive Engineering Principles for Enhancing Human-Computer Interaction”
In a paper published in 1996, Gerhardt-Powal lays out 10 cognitive design principles, created for the domain of anti-submarine warfare.
Much like Shneiderman’s list, this concise set of UX heuristics includes broad design rules such as “group data in consistent, meaningful ways” and “use names that are conceptually related to function.”
Bruce Tognazzini’s “First Principles of Interaction Design”
As a current partner at the Nielsen-Norman Group and an early employee at Apple Computer, Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini is an influential figure in the UX design world.
Developed in the early 2000s, the original version of his “First Principles of Interaction Design” contains guidelines for 16 different general subject areas (such as “autonomy” and “color-blindness”), listed in alphabetical order.
A new version, published in 2014, is significantly more detailed, covering a wider variety of usability topics and sub-topics.
Screenshot of the most recent version of Tognazzini’s First Principles. Source: AskTog.
Deciding Which Heuristics to Use
Now that you’re familiar with some common UX heuristics, how do you choose which ones to use?
Not every UX heuristic will be relevant to your specific project. When choosing which set of heuristics to use, it’s important to consider your goals, main priorities, and capabilities.
You may choose to conduct your evaluation using one main set of proven heuristics (such as Nielsen’s Heuristics) or you could mix and match rules from several different lists.
You may also want to go beyond just looking at heuristics and apply your own experience and judgment while creating your report. In this case, the process might be more broadly called an expert review rather than strictly a heuristic analysis.
How to Conduct a Heuristic Analysis
Here, we’ll give some practical advice for conducting your heuristic analysis from start to finish.
Planning for the Heuristic Analysis
As with all business processes, heuristic evaluation in UX starts with a well-thought-out plan.
Preparing a plan could include the following steps:
- Define the scope of the project: It’s important to create realistic goals based on your company’s budget and main objectives.
- Consult your personas: Before embarking on a heuristic evaluation, you should have already defined a few personas. Your personas are your target users, and you’ll want to keep them in mind when completing your analysis.
- Decide which heuristics to use: As discussed above, there are many different sets of UX heuristics to choose from. Before beginning your evaluation, you should compare and contrast these, and decide which ones are most relevant.
- Choose your tools: You’ll want to decide on a format for your final report and choose tools that make sense for that format. Since you may be working with multiple evaluators (see below), using collaborative tools such as Google Docs can make the process easier.
- Select and train your team: If you are the only UX specialist at your organization, you may find yourself tasked with performing a heuristic evaluation alone. However, the experts at the Nielsen-Norman Group recommend that multiple people work on an evaluation whenever possible. Different people bring different perspectives, and using multiple experts reduces the risk of bias or errors. According to Jakob Nielsen, the ideal number of UX evaluators is three to five.
Completing the Heuristic Analysis
Now that you’ve created a plan, it’s time to move on to the analysis. Here’s how to proceed:
- Inspect the interface alone: When completing a heuristic analysis as a group, each UX expert should first inspect the interface alone. This will ensure that each individual can contribute his/her independent opinion. These sessions should take approximately one to two hours.
- Record findings: While analyzing the interface, evaluators should record their findings in some way. This could involve either taking notes or reporting their thoughts verbally to an observer. An observer is a neutral bystander responsible for taking notes and answering any questions evaluators might have during a heuristic analysis.
- Compile findings: An evaluation manager should compile the key findings of each individual evaluation into a report. The report should make clear what the problems are, the severity of each problem, and which heuristic has been violated in each case.
- Brainstorm solutions: Finally, the UX team should meet to discuss the findings of the heuristic analysis and brainstorm possible solutions to the issues they found.
Final Deliverable: Your Heuristic Evaluation Report
In step three above, we mentioned that the evaluation manager should compile a final report. This deliverable provides an easy, visual way to present the evaluation findings to stakeholders.
A good heuristic evaluation report can include any or all of the following:
- Checklists: You can sum up the findings in your report by using a checklist or rating system (for example, a scale of 1-10) to show how closely heuristic standards have been followed.
- Screenshots: If you’re evaluating software, screenshots can help you illustrate specific pain points.
- Photographs: When evaluating a physical prototype or a design on paper, photos are a good visual tool to use.
- Solutions: Include potential solutions to the problems you’ve uncovered.
Don’t forget to include positive feedback as well as critical feedback in your analysis—knowing what worked well the first time can be just as useful as knowing what didn’t work.
Heuristic Evaluation Case Studies
Below, you can find some case studies to reference when completing your own heuristic analysis.
We’ve now learned how to conduct a heuristic analysis, what heuristics are, and why this type of evaluation is an important part of the UX design process.
As previously mentioned, heuristic evaluations alone are not enough—when optimizing your product for UX, you’ll also need to consult users themselves.
However, the valuable insights of Jakob Nielsen and other experts, combined with the experience of your own team, provide a great starting point for your UX research. Heuristic evaluation has a clear and important place in the world of UX.
Ready to take your UX design education to the next level? Check out Springboard’s UX Career Track. It’s a self-paced, mentor-led bootcamp that will give you the real-world experience required to land a job in UX—guaranteed.