What Is Heuristic Evaluation and Why Do You Need It?

By Adam Fard - Lead Product Designer

Great usability reflects a product's quality. Therefore, the better the usability, the more users will engage with the product — and the higher the ROI.

When we think about the design of a product, the first thought that comes to mind is how something looks: Is it eye-catching? Do the colors complement each other? Does it have the aesthetic appeal that will lure consumers in? While all this is technically true for a good design, a great design needs to go the extra mile. Achieve this by making sure your product not only looks awesome but also provides a seamless user experience.

"Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible."

– Donald Norman.

Great usability reflects a product's quality. Therefore, the better the usability, the more users will engage with the product — and the higher the ROI. It's the ultimate cycle of a successful product and a happy user.

It's easy to create a product that looks good, but what about making one that's practical and easy to use? Do a variety of usability tests to ensure your product is user-friendly. The most efficient way is via heuristic evaluation.

But what exactly is heuristic evaluation and does your product really need it? Let’s find out.

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What Is Heuristic Evaluation?

 

Heuristic evaluation is a key part of designing a great product that users can easily engage with and find value in their interaction. It is a thorough assessment of a product’s user interface, and its purpose is to detect usability issues that may occur when users interact with a product, and identify ways to resolve them.

The heuristic evaluation process is conducted against a predetermined set of usability principles known as heuristics. The process relies on in-depth tests run by several usability experts at a time. Although there are numerous heuristics, the most commonly used criteria in usability inspection were developed by Jacob Nielsen in 1995, known as the Heuristics for User Interface Design.

Other heuristics include Ben Shneiderman’s Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design, Jill Gerhardt-Powals’ 10 Cognitive Engineering Principles, and Alan Cooper’s “About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design.” If it’s your first time doing a heuristic evaluation, we strongly suggest using Nielsen’s heuristics. This specific collection of heuristics contains 10 rules of thumb that have been proven to produce excellent UX designs.

Additionally, there are several inspection methods for heuristic evaluation: heuristic analysis, cognitive walkthrough, and user testing. While the end goal is similar, the efficiency and validity of each are not.

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What Is the Difference Between Heuristic Analysis, Cognitive Walkthrough, and User Testing?

Often, these terms are used interchangeably. However, they are all distinctly different in their own right, and one is just as valuable as the next. To best illustrate each usability evaluation method, let’s take a closer look.

Cognitive walkthrough

Who: New user.
What: Performs specific user tasks in line with user goals.
Why: To determine if the sequential processes to get from point A (user task) to point B (user goal) work in the correct order they were designed to.


User testing

Who: End-user.
What: Uses the digital product in realistic circumstances.
Why: To understand how representative users will complete typical tasks in real-life situations.


Heuristic analysis

Who: System expert.
What: Compares usability to predefined heuristics.
Why: To see if the digital product can be used in a way that is most compatible for users and aligns with recognized usability principles.

 

From all three usability inspection methods, heuristic analysis is the most reliable, as tests are more rigorous and systematic. They are also completed by evaluators with a deep understanding of heuristics, human variability, interaction design (IxD), HCI (human-computer interaction), and UX design. Also, evaluators typically have a background in relevant disciplines, including psychology, computer science, information sciences, and business.

This is why we will focus on heuristic analysis as the inspection method of choice for an impeccable UX design.

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Using Heuristic Analysis for Usability Evaluation

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Appointing 5–8 heuristic evaluators should identify over 80% of usability hitches.

Heuristic analysis is a usability inspection technique where a small group of usability experts (ideally, five to eight) tests a given digital product’s UI. Comparing it to given heuristics, heuristic evaluators use the product and flag usability problems as they occur.

During the evaluation, each evaluator marks usability issues according to a severity scale. This is so that project managers and design teams can organize their backlog based on the severity rating assigned to each issue. By doing so, they can prioritize tasks and determine which issues require immediate intervention, working their way down the list.

Once the review is over, the heuristic evaluators provide a comprehensive report on the usability status of a digital product. Although one experienced evaluator will be able to flag the most critical UX issues, employing the services of several evaluators is a better option. Appointing five to eight heuristic evaluators should identify over 80 percent of usability hitches. This should be more than enough to increase the quality of your product’s design.

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Why Should You Do It?

Unless you want to have a mediocre (or bad) product that’s barely bringing in new users, let alone retaining old ones, then you desperately need a heuristic evaluation. Seriously. Doing a heuristic evaluation is extremely important in improving the overall design of your digital product.

If you’re wondering why your product is performing terribly, then a usability inspection will give you the answers you seek. Perhaps you need to have clearer navigation or shorter registration forms. You’ll never know unless you do some testing. So, why delay it?

Download the free heuristic evaluation template to find out if your design makes the cut!

You will receive the link per email. Don't forget to check your spam folder.

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What Are the Pros and Cons of a Heuristic Evaluation?

Before you jump into the heuristic evaluation, it’s important that you understand both its advantages and disadvantages.

 

Pros

Quick and cost-effective. Use the internal resources you already have in place to administer an evaluation.
Flexible. Complete testing at any stage of the design process. Evaluate wireframes, prototypes, live products — or all of the above.
Exhaustive. Enable a comprehensive scan of your product’s current UX design.
Severity rating. Organize usability issues, and solve them in accordance with their level of severity.
Usability principles. Following a set of heuristics lets you identify problems in specific user flows.
Compatible. You can combine multiple usability testing methods at the same time.

 

Cons

Shortage of usability experts. Finding an experienced usability evaluator can sometimes be a challenge, depending on the niche of the product being tested.
Lack of experience. Onboarding newbie evaluators may influence the value of the usability issues identified.
False positives. Issues that are flagged based on heuristics may not necessarily cause a negative user experience in practice.

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How to Conduct an Effective Heuristic Evaluation?

An accurate heuristic evaluation calls for careful preparation and requires you to follow a strict order of steps. Skipping a step may deem your test results invalid. Here are the steps to ensure that your heuristic evaluation yields maximum results:

 

Step 1: Define the scope of your evaluation.

The first thing you should do is define the scope of your evaluation in keeping with your budget and deadline. Do you need to test every aspect of your product or should you concentrate on particular user-flows? If you need to identify major issues in a small time frame, it’s best to limit the scope and focus on precise parameters.

Think about the specific usability parameters that you want to test, such as registration, login/out, email signup, navigation, shopping cart, and checkout. Having a limited scope is easier to control and assess.

Ask yourself: What do I want to test?

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Step 2: Know your end-user.

Understanding who your end-user is and what their goals are will aid the usability evaluation. This is an important part of mapping out the user flow, as different user groups have distinct expectations. For instance, some users might not have issues registering for a product, while others may see it as an unnecessary step and abandon a product.

User motivation depends on various factors, including demographics, personal preferences, skill sets, and more. Know your end-user, and create advanced user personas to assist evaluators during the evaluation process.

Ask yourself: Who is this product for?

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Step 3: Choose your set of heuristics.

Select which heuristics the evaluators are going to use. This will ensure that they are all using the same guidelines throughout the evaluation. We mentioned a few of the most popular heuristics earlier, so check them out.

Without heuristics, the usability evaluation will produce unreliable, inconsistent, and ultimately, useless results. Essentially, all your efforts will be for nothing.

Ask yourself: Which usability principles should be followed?

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Step 4: Set up an evaluation system and identify issues.

Decide how evaluators will evaluate and report the usability of your product. Try setting up a simple evaluation system using a severity rating (critical issue, normal issue, minor issue, good practice) or a traffic lights scheme (red, orange, yellow, green). Whichever evaluation system you choose, discuss it with evaluators beforehand to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Furthermore, evaluators should keep track of issues by making detailed notes of where they encountered the issue and how serious it is. This will help organize the design team’s backlog later on.

Ask yourself: How will evaluators assess and report a usability issue?

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Step 5: Analyze and summarize findings.

 

As the evaluation draws to a close, it’s time to gather, compare, and summarize the findings. One of the key benefits of using multiple evaluators is that they will each find issues that their counterparts have missed.

Start by removing duplicates and organizing the data consistent with the severity rating of each issue. This will facilitate the design team in prioritizing their workflows. The findings will become the launchpad for improved UX design and an all-around better product.

Ask yourself: What do the findings show?

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Should You Pay for a Heuristic Evaluation or Do It Yourself?

 

Many companies are sitting on the fence about whether they should pay for a heuristic analysis. Some may argue that they already have an in-house team of UX designers, so why should they have to fork out the additional expense? Others may be willing to pay if doing so will benefit their product in the long run.

The overall design and heuristic evaluation process can be a bit overwhelming. And while you may have a great team of UX designers working on your product, you need to consider the bias that might appear when evaluating their own designs, albeit unintentionally.

Spending hours working on, looking at, and testing a design will take away that fresh perspective needed to identify weak spots. It’s in cases like these that paying for a heuristic evaluation is not such a bad idea.

If you want to be absolutely certain that your design will tick all the boxes when undergoing a heuristic analysis, getting help from a professional UX design agency is a smart idea.

That being said, it’s okay to get that extra set of eyes to work alongside you and your team. This tiny investment will save you time and (a lot of) money in the long run. So, in response to whether you should pay for a heuristic evaluation, ask yourself these two questions:

1 . Do you trust that your UX design team will be 100-percent objective in their evaluation?

2 . Can you afford a biased heuristic evaluation that could hinder the success of your digital product?

Looks like you’ve got your answer.

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The Bottom Line

You’d be surprised by just how many usability issues your product may have. Performing a heuristics analysis with the skill set of even just one usability expert is enough to identify and fix major problems in UX design. You’ll notice the difference in user engagement, bounce rates, product sales, and user retention rates as soon as necessary changes are made.

Moreover, don’t limit yourself to just one usability inspection method. Combining a heuristic analysis with cognitive walkthrough and user-testing will ensure your product’s design is up to standard — from both a design expert and an end user’s point of view.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to whether you want to develop a strong product or one that’s bound to flop in time. Do you want your consumers to break a sweat while using your product or to enjoy their experience? The choice is yours, so choose wisely.

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