Design in UX should not only be about aesthetics but equally importantly, it should also be usable. Thus, a UX designer's role is to design a product that is both aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly.
But how do you test the product usability? In this article, Heuristic Analysis In Improving The User Experience, we will discuss what a heuristic analysis is, along with the following sub-topics:
What is heuristic analysis?
Heuristic analysis comes from a Greek word, which means “to discover”. The heuristic analysis is a method of discovery, learning, and problem-solving. It uses rules, estimates, and speculations in order to find a solution to an issue.
In UX, the heuristic analysis is considered a usability method for finding usability problems in a user interface design. This involves a set of evaluators who are to examine the interface and to critique its usability based on the recognized usability principles.
The heuristic analysis is rarely done by an individual evaluator. A single heuristic evaluation is a difficult thing to do since one person will not be able to find all the possible and existing usability problems in a design.
Based on many existing heuristic analysis cases, it was shown that different people find different usability problems. Thus, the more evaluators there are, the higher the possibility to improve the usability of the product.
Generally, heuristic evaluation is performed by having an individual evaluator inspect the product alone. The product evaluators are only allowed to interact with each other after everyone completed the individual evaluations and have their findings aggregated. This is important to ensure that there are independent and unbiased evaluations from each individual evaluator.
The findings can be recorded as written reports, or the evaluators can verbalize their comments to the assigned observer as they examine the product.
With the help of an observer, the workload is reduced from the evaluators since the results can be finalized as soon as the last evaluation session is over. The observer usually handles the personal notes from the evaluators and is tasked to understand and organize them right after the evaluation. The observer also assists the evaluators in using the product design in case there are problems like an unstable prototype.
What is the purpose of heuristic analysis?
Like what was explained beforehand, heuristic evaluation is performed to improve the usability of a product.
Another reason for conducting heuristic analysis is to create efficiency. In this context, “efficiency” refers to the speed at which the product can be used as a direct response to better usability.
The “usability” that a heuristic analysis is looking for in a product refers to the quality of components like learnability, discoverability memorability, flexibility, user satisfaction, and error prevention. Thus, the UX of a product is greatly improved when all of these components are met.
When to use a heuristic analysis in UX?
There are no hard rules when it comes to conducting a heuristic analysis. It can be done anytime at any advanced stage of the design process. However, of course, a heuristic analysis should not be done too early for obvious productivity reasons.
In the case of new products, a heuristic analysis is generally performed at a later stage of the design process. Specifically, it is performed after wireframing and prototyping and before the visual and UI design development begins. For existing products, a heuristic evaluation is conducted before a redesign begins.
What is the expected result of a heuristic analysis?
Just like the other usability tests, a heuristic analysis is composed of a consolidated report that identifies usability issues and also scales them from severe to mildly problematic.
A heuristic report, however, does not include solutions. But most usability problems have obvious solutions. Thus, by simply identifying the problems, the design team can easily come with the design fixes.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of a heuristic analysis?
- Improves a product’s UX by identifying many usability problems
- Cheaper and faster than most usability tests available. Traditional usability tests require participants, equipment, coordination, full-blown analysis, and etc.
- It helps evaluators focus on very specific problems such as lack of feedback, poor discoverability, and recover from errors
- It does not carry the ethical and practical issues or problems that are associated with the inspection methods for users
- Design evaluation based on a set of heuristic principles easily helps identifies the usability problems of a specific user flow and helps determines the impact on the overall user experience
- Experienced usability evaluators are very hard to find and can also be expensive
- The issues that are usually identified by the evaluators are limited by their skill level
- Sometimes, it may set a false alarm like issues that do not necessarily have a negative impact on the overall user experience. In most cases, if these issues are left alone, it can be fixed on its own.
- It is based on “prejudged notions” on what makes a “good usability”
- If the assigned evaluators are not part of the design or development team, they may become unaware of the limitations of the user interface
What is the difference between heuristic analysis vs other user testing analysis?
In user test evaluation, the observer has the responsibility of interpreting the user’s actions to identify the usability issues found in the design interface. Usually, the users should have prior knowledge or experience of the interface.
In heuristic analysis, however, it is possible to conduct user testing even when users are not familiar with the interface. The evaluator is responsible for analyzing the user interface and the assigned observer only needs to record the comments from the evaluator. The observer does not need to interpret these comments made by the evaluator.
Another difference between the heuristic evaluation and the traditional user testing is the willingness of the observer to answer the evaluator’s questions during the session. The observer is not limited to the extent of help on using the interface.
In traditional user testing, the observer usually takes to note all the mistakes that the user has made. Thus, the observers are not allowed to provide their opinion or any kind of help when asked.
The users in traditional user testing are requested to discover the answers to their questions by following a system, rather than having them answered by the observer.
In heuristic analysis, it would be unreasonable to refuse to answer the evaluators’ questions, especially in cases where experts have limited skills and knowledge of the user interface. Addressing the evaluators’ questions will enable them to better assess the usability of the product or the prototype.
How to do a heuristic evaluation UX
For every evaluation, it is key to prepare in advance. This is true for heuristic evaluation, where you follow a set of steps to ensure that you run it efficiently to achieve the desired results.
Here are the 5 steps in running a heuristic analysis in UX:
1. Scope definition
2. Knowledge of business requirements and end-users demographics
3. Identification of the heuristics and tools to use
4. Experience evaluation and usability issues identification
5. Analysis, aggregation, and results
Step 1: Scope definition
In terms of defining the scope in a heuristic analysis, the parameters are usually set up to examine only the most crucial areas of the project. This is very helpful for both large and small projects where the budget is limited.
Like for example, it is not feasible on large eCommerce sites to be examined in terms of usability as it can take longer to get results and therefore, become too expensive.
With heuristic analysis, you can limit the scope to focus on specific areas, user flows, and functionalities like login/register buttons, the search button, the product pages, or the checkout page.
Step 2: Knowledge of business requirements and end-users demographics
Before facilitating a heuristic analysis, the evaluators should first acquire two things:
One, the evaluators should understand the business needs of the product or system. And two, the evaluators should know the end-users. In order to properly facilitate the heuristic analysis, the evaluators should establish specific personas. Some important questions to be answered in relation to this are: What are the user demographics? Are the end-users beginners or experts?
Step 3: Identification of the heuristics and tools to use
Identifying a set of heuristics and the tools to use will certainly provide proper guidelines for each evaluator to base their heuristic evaluation. This will also ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Without proper identification of the heuristics and tools to use, the heuristics analysis process could fall into chaos and in turn will produce inconsistent, conflicting results, which can become ineffective.
The set of heuristics are general rules that describe the common properties of usable interfaces. In addition to the checklist, the observer can also consider any additional usability elements, principles, or results that come to mind and are relevant.
Thus, when it comes to planning your heuristic evaluation, you need to agree on the system, the format, and the tools to use first. You can use Google Docs, Google Sheets, Slides, or other reporting tools that each evaluator and observer are familiar with and have easy access to.
You can also check out Jakob Nielsen 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design below:
Jakob Nielsen usability heuristics is one of the most used sets of usability heuristics (like this UX Check tool here that uses Jakob Nielsen heuristics). These are general heuristics used for usability guidelines.
More than 25 years ago, Jakob Nielsen created these 10 general principles for usability design. These principles were developed based on years of experience in the field of UX and they’ve became rules of thumb for human computer interaction.
Until this day, they are just as relevant as they were back then. They can help to assist development and design teams considerable amounts of time during the early stages of usability testing. This in turn helped many UX professionals direct the attention to more complex design challenges. Additionally, these are worth it to use as a checklist when designing a new product or adding a new feature.
Jakob Nielsen 10 usability heuristics
1. Visibility of system status
As human beings we always like it when we are in control of things. Control gives us a sense of safety and in terms of physiological needs like food and sleep, taking control help us survive.
When people interact with any product, it should always provide immediate feedback on the interaction. Like for example, a visual sign like the change of the button’s color when the mouse is hovered, or a loading spinner helps the user understand what’s going on, and thus, prevents them from any other unnecessary interactions.
2. Match between system and the real world
It is always known that humans' approach to every new system is based on a mental model in mind. This means that people presume how the system works based on their real life experience with other systems they are familiar with.
In today's time, there are so many design clues that were introduced: such as applications like the compass or the calculator. You can also notice design components like folders, toggles, or lock icons. In addition, language and concepts from the real world help users easily understand the system. This is also the reason why the app for storing cards is called Wallet, saving our favorite websites is called "Bookmarking", and all removed files can be found in "Trash" folder.
3. User control and freedom
In this digital age and time, people are always in a hurry to get this done. This behavior often resulted to technical accidents like unwanted clicks or other errors which can be frustrating. Example cases would be something like an accidental deletion of a file or posting a grammatical mistake on social media. Thus, in design or in any system, it should offer an "emergency exit” mechanism that provides users to option to undo the error or the mistake after they find themselves in an unwanted state.
In human computer design, you can offer emergency exit option such as an arrow back in browsers, undo option, or recover button from the trash bin.
4. Consistency and standards
A comprehensible system should never confuse users by using different words, visuals, or actions for the same concepts. This is the reason why the copy-paste functionality works the same across different applications. You can also find the same standard of use when you want to go to the website homepage by simply clicking the Home icon or the home text.
5. Error prevention
Based on The Design of Everyday Things, there are two kinds of errors created by interaction with a user interface: slips and mistakes.
Slips happen when the user tends to do an action, but due to low attention, performs another one. To minimize slips from happening, you need to properly guide the users only through the safe areas. You can set-up constraints that don’t allow a user to set a wrong value. For example, when you only expect a number, then don’t allow the user to write any letters.
Mistakes are often caused by human error based from a different mental model of how the system works. In this case, the user misunderstands the communication and consciously performs an action which leads to a different result. While these kind of errors don’t often come with an easy fix, you can use clear communication and a consistent design system to prevent further mistakes.
6. Recognition rather than recall
The recognition happens when you easily recognize a person or an object that you’re familiar with. This is a very shallow form of retrieval from memory and it doesn’t require any work.
On the other hand, the recall happens when you have to find rarely used information in your memory. To recall information, people have to activate more memory chunks. Thus, the recall process is a deeper retrieval and requires more work.
In UX, a good user interface doesn’t require the user to recall frequently. It should offer all options and information for users to make a choice. It is important to provide users clues for remembering any required information. You can also provide an icon next to the feature name, or use a specific color to easily recognize specific functions.
7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
Always consider the fact that every singer user is unique and each have their own different needs and skills. Thus when designing, it is important to know that every task is unique and requires different controllers.
Be clear and minimize the screen for easy navigation. The app should only display relevant UI elements and commands.
8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
Over time, a minimalist design is proven to be a lasting trend. In UX, this is widely used with the aim to reduce the description of a subject just to only important elements.
9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Designing error messages should be as easy and clear to the users. We need to put the same effort like when we are designing the whole system in every error message. It should be explicit and precise since no one wants to read vague messages like “something went wrong.” Provide the user some advice on what to do next, propose the solution, or direct the user to a customer support who can handle the situation.
10. Help and documentation
As much as possible, every app should strive to be perfectly usable without any documentation,. However, since there are different kinds of users, different user's skill levels, and different tasks available, it is important for one to have a well written documentation, FAQs, and tutorials.
Weinschenk and Barker 20 usability heuristics
Even though, Nielsen's 10 heuristics are the most popular and widely used, you can find more heuristics from other sources. Like for example, the heuristics of Weinschenk and Barker, which are based from many sources on usability guidelines and heuristics, including Nielsen's. The result of the research generate a list of 20 heuristic guidelines:
1. User Control
The interface allows users to have in control and allows one appropriate control.
2. Human Limitations
The interface do not overload the user’s cognitive, visual, auditory, tactile, or motor limits.
3. Modal Integrity
The interface fits individual tasks within whatever modality is being used: auditory, visual, or motor.
The interface fits the way specific user group works and thinks.
5. Linguistic Clarity
The interface communicates to users efficiently.
6. Aesthetic Integrity
The interface has an attractive and appropriate design.
The interface presents simple elements.
The interface behaves in a way that users can accurately predict what will happen next.
The interface makes reasonable thinking about what the user is trying to do.
The interface is free from errors.
11. Technical Clarity
The interface has the highest possible tech documentation and support.
The interface allows the user to adapt the design for custom use.
The interface provides guaranteed good user experience.
14. Cultural Propriety
The interface matches the user’s cultural customs and expectations.
15. Suitable Tempo
The interface operates at a tempo suitable to the user to manage both use and design.
The interface is consistent.
17. User Support
The interface provides additional assistance as needed.
The interface allows the users to perform a task in exact manner.
The interface makes recoverable actions.
The interface informs users on the results of their actions as well as the interface’s status.
Step 4: Experience evaluation and usability issues identification
As explained, in a heuristic evaluation is performed with a group of evaluators, each conducts separate UI evaluation. This is conducted this way to ensure that the evaluations will be left independent and unbiased. All findings will be collated and aggregated soon as the evaluations are complete.
It is advisable to also use an observer in the evaluation process. This is an efficient approach to heuristics analysis as there are many advantages to gain by adding an observer.
The observer is present in every session and handles taking the notes, which are also easily consolidated into a report at the end of the heuristic analysis.
The observer can also answer questions from evaluators that may arise during the analysis. These questions, for example, maybe about domain expertise or anything that evaluators find confusing or have limited knowledge about.
The observer may also help in assisting and guiding the session in cases where the product design or prototype being evaluated has limited functionality.
A heuristic evaluation session usually lasts one to two hours only. There are longer evaluations for larger or complicated interfaces but in these cases, it is advisable to split the evaluation into smaller sessions, with each concentrating on only one part of the interface.
During the evaluation session, the evaluator goes through the interface several times and inspects the interface comparing these to the list of recognized usability principles (set of heuristics).
The findings must be precise in order to assist the design team move to apply the design fixes. So, vague notes are not helpful or valuable at all. The notes should be specific and clearly identify the heuristic that the issue violates.
Additionally, the results from the heuristic evaluation method enlists all the usability problems about the prototype based from the given usability principles in design. The evaluator does not simply say something based from their opinion. It should be expanded as to why it is likeable or unlikeable opinion in reference to the heuristics given or other existing ones that should be added or noted.
The evaluators should be very specific about the problems and it is important to list each problem separately. It is important to make a sperate list for each problem to avoid the risk of repeating some problematic elements in the design. Also, another reason is it may not be possible to fix all the existing problems in a product interface or to replace it with a new design.
You can use visuals with notes to speed up the process. This is a method that quickly aggregate the evaluators’ final notes. With visuals, the observer does not need to search for the UI components that are being addressed. You can also use codes for easy identification by the design team.
Step 5: Analysis, aggregation, and results
In the conclusion of heuristic analysis, the evaluation manager or the observer carries some housekeeping and organization like removing duplicates and collating the findings.
The next step is aggregating the heuristic evaluation reports and building a table that includes the severity ratings of usability issues. These data will assist the design team prioritize certain issues.
The results from the heuristic analysis enlist the usability problems that not only identify the existing problems but also reference the usability heuristics the problems violate. These heuristics use codes for easy reference.
The reference codes from the chosen heuristics help build a table, where data can be sorted. So, when the design team sees the number of issues referenced and identified from these codes, they can easily focus their energy on improving them.
As mentioned above, the heuristic analysis does not necessarily provide solutions to the existing usability issues. It also does not provide any “success probability score” for the design improvements to be implemented.
Still, the heuristic evaluation process compares the user interface against a set of known and existing usability heuristics. Thus, in most cases, it is very easy to identify the solution to the found problems and come up with a more user compelling design.
There are so many apps and products in development that suffer from poor usability. Most of these products would benefit from the heuristic analysis performed by UX experts. The heuristic analysis is a cost-efficient way to get some dramatic improvement in the product’s UX without investing too much in terms of usability testing.
As discussed above, a single UX expert can uncover a lot of substantial usability issues during a heuristic analysis. But we highly recommend you invest in 5 to 8 experts, if you have the budget. This is enough to uncover usability issues and at the same time gives you a significant ROI.
The ROI here is based on the increase in user productivity and also the estimated increase in product sales due to higher customer satisfaction, ratings, and positive reviews.
However, with all these positive takes on heuristic analysis, it should also be taken to note that this should not be your only source of data. Still, there are limits to expert reviews such as cognitive bias.
In order to achieve optimal results, the heuristic analysis should be combined with cognitive walkthroughs and one-on-one usability testing.