Heuristic Evaluation: The Most Informal Usability Inspection Method

The Basics of Heuristics

There numerous types of heuristics that apply to the design process. What’s a designer to do? You can either choose the heuristics that are most suited for your project or you can create custom heuristics from all the available heuristics. The most popular heuristics are the Nielsen, Ben Shneiderman’s Eight Golden Rules, and Gerhardt-Powals’ Cognitive Engineering Principles.

Nielsen heuristics were developed by Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group in 1994. These usability heuristics are the most commonly used in UI design because they focus on creating a simple and seamless experience for users. Nielsen emphasizes on the visibility of system status so that users are always aware of what is happening through the use of progress bars and timers. These heuristics also call for error prevention instead of focusing on the creation of error messages. Minimalism is a core principle of Nielsen heuristics with a focus on uniformity, simplicity, flexibility, and user control. A severity rating is used to detriment how usability problems should be prioritized. Nielsen heuristics are most useful when testing the usability of specific elements of a design.

Ben Shneiderman’s eight golden rules of interface design promote the heuristics of consistency, shortcuts for super users, continuous feedback, and clear dialogue that guides users. These heuristics also advocate for a simple way of handling errors and a forgiving system that allows users to undo or redo their actions. Shneiderman’s heuristics require that users have a strong sense of control and that there is no cognitive overload. Just like Nielsen’s heuristics, Shneiderman’s heuristics are well suited for testing individual components.

Gerhardt-Powals’ Cognitive Engineering Principles are useful in evaluating usability problems holistically by looking at how a system interacts with users. The heuristics highlight the importance of reducing the cognitive load of users and presenting information clearly to reduce uncertainty which causes errors and time-wasting. New information should be presented using a language that users understand and naming should be done according to function. When grouping data Gerhardt-Powals advises doing it logically and consistently while only displaying useful data. These heuristics are useful when testing the high-level usability and how information flows in a system.

Pros of Heuristic Evaluation

Heuristic evaluation is preferred to user testing because of how accessible it is. It is easy for companies to use their in-house staff as usability experts to pinpoint usability issues in a prototype or wireframe. Heuristics analysis is also easy to set up and implement because it doesn’t involve many players.

Here are the benefits of heuristic evaluation:

Inexpensive

Heuristic evaluations can be done by in house UX/UI designers who test a design as expert users. Employees from other departments can be novice users and if a company does not have any in-house experts they can hire one or two external usability experts. This makes the process inexpensive because a company does not have to pay the cost of user testing.

Time Saving

Heuristic evaluation can be set up and completed very fast as compared to other usability testing methods.

Can be deployed early in the design process

Heuristic evaluation can be done as soon as the prototype is out because of its quick and inexpensive nature. This improves the design process as obvious usability issues are caught and dealt with early.

Has few ethical problems

There are few ethical issues when doing heuristic evaluation because usability testing is done in a virtual environment. When using other methods such as user testing ethical issues with test subjects can come up.

Focusing and eye-opening experience

The processes of setting up the heuristic analysis and choosing the usability principles that will be used to test the system help in understanding how the overall system works and how different components work together.

It’s a technically sound process

Heuristic analysis is done by experts who have a deep understanding of the common usability issues and can pinpoint errors such as the use of jargon instead of plain language or the users’ language.

Cons of Heuristic Evaluation

Even though heuristic evaluation is a great way of inspecting design usability it has disadvantages with the main one being bias from the usability experts. Moreover, if the wrong heuristics are chosen, the whole process will be doomed even before it begins.

Here are the cons of heuristic evaluation:

Can be biased

Heuristic evaluations are based on the observations and opinions of evaluators who can be biased because of their personal experiences, attitudes, and inclinations. Moreover, when in-house experts are used, they may be unable to give an objective review of their creation. This means that some of the usability issues raised might not help users.

Does not involve end users

Usability testing that does not involve end-user research is incomplete. Expert users have a high efficiency of use and might overlook some issues that might be important to novice end users. These testers might also not run into unwanted states because of their level of knowledge.

It might be difficult to get qualified experts

It is not enough for those who do heuristic evaluations to be user experience experts, they should also have a deep understanding of the problem that the design wants to solve. If the right expert can not be found, then the entire process might be wasted because it might not reflect the opinions of end users.

The wrong heuristics might be selected

If the wrong heuristics are selected or an important heuristic is not selected, the whole process might be doomed from the start regardless of how qualified the experts are.

It is not comprehensive

Heuristic evaluation cannot unearth all the usability issues that a design has. It might focus too much on design principles or assume that users will use the design in a logical order and leave out issues that are important to the end user.

How to Conduct a Heuristic Evaluation

The process of carrying out a heuristic evaluation is the same regardless of the industry or nature of the design project. The first phase is the planning phase where the heuristic evaluation process is mapped out. The second phase is the executing phase where the actual heuristic evaluation takes place. Finally, the reviewing phase examines the results of the evaluation and recommends a plan of action.

Planning

The first step in the planning phase is to define the heuristics that are going to be used during the evaluation. These heuristics should be chosen carefully based on market research, previous user testing, and the principles of careful design. Next, the evaluators should be selected. The best evaluators are those that have industry knowledge and usability expertise, Aim for at least two evaluators to create diversity, reduce the effect of biases, and catch more usability problems.

Executing

During the evaluation, the first step is briefing the evaluators so that they understand the heuristics that are going to be used and how the system functions. The evaluators will then interact with the system so that they can understand it and how it works. Next, the evaluators will evaluate the system based on the pre-determined heuristics and how separate components work with the whole system. They will note any usability problems that they find and it is also good practice to record the sessions.

Reviewing

Here, the evaluators will present their findings and you will collate their findings into one master document. Afterward, the evaluators should list concrete steps that can be used to improve the usability issues that they found and how the design process can be improved. The evaluators should explain their use of the system experience and if they found any error-prone conditions in the system. 

by Paul Osborne on 11th December, 2019

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