When I had to redesign the Usability for Websites course at the University of Denver, I integrated a heuristic evaluation module at the end so my students can apply it to their jobs because they are becoming UX experts. But you cannot jump into evaluating user interfaces without proper training because it is important to understand how users work with user interfaces and how to design with users in mind first.
Heuristic Evaluation is a procedure performed by Usability experts to assess the overall usability of an application. This exercise is based on finding flaws in a system by comparing the user interface against some predetermined principles that cannot be violated. Then, give recommendations on how to solve or alleviate these issues to improve the user experience.
This evaluation is relatively inexpensive because it can be performed by one person without having to interview multiple users and schedule appointments. Nevertheless, it should never replace a real usability study with actual users because the point of view of the expert is different from the users.
The most popular usability heuristics for UI design is the list created by Jakob Nielsen’s principles for interaction design. But it is not the only one. If you want to perform a more detailed heuristic evaluation, you could use the guidelines from the Research Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines book. This a free book published in 2006 but most of the guidelines and recommendations still apply today.
Other principles that can be used for heuristic evaluations:
- Principles of User Interface Design by Joshua Porter
- The 5Es of Usability by Whitney Quesenbery
- The User Experience Honeycomb by Peter Morville
- UX Heuristics
- Usability Principles by Levi and Conrad
Before performing a heuristic evaluation, this evaluation needs to be unbiased. Therefore, nobody of the development or design team should perform because you already know how the application works and everything would “make sense” to you.
In a large organization with different teams working on different products, it would be better to help each other by evaluating products from other teams. And remember, heuristic evaluation is not to judge you as a designer, it is to judge the usability of the product. Never take anything personal and read over the recommendations so you can improve your product. Tech and design trends evolve and what you think is great today, you might not feel as proud five or ten years from now. Therefore, don’t get attached to your design nor take anything in the recommendation as a personal attack. Now, use the following steps for a heuristic evaluation.
First, go over the documentation and understand who the users are and try to find information about the personas and how they would be using the application. That will give you some insight into the settings and the environment of the personas while performing the tasks.
Select one of the frameworks I mentioned earlier. Also, there are more out there that can be beneficial to your project. It is up to you to pick the right one. For instance, if the budget is limited and you cannot go over a lot of details like the Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines book, you could use the 5Es. It all depends on the context of the application and the budget allocated for this purpose.
Depending on the framework or heuristic chosen, you might find free templates that can avoid the process of creating one from scratch. For instance, Nielsen Norman Group already has a free Heuristic Evaluation Workbook available.
After you pick a framework, you will go point by point looking for flaws based on the framework at hand. You will use the UI, responsiveness, affordances, constraints, and messages used in the app. Every finding must be documented and explained for the team to not make the same mistake.
Don’t forget to take screenshots that will be used in the next step with the explanations. Pictures speak more than words in some contexts and it helps to communicate better with the team so they know exactly the problem without misinterpretations.
Based on the users and the flaws you found in the user interface, you must provide recommendations on how to fix or alleviate the problems. Remember that you are the expert and your voice matters. The reason to perform the evaluation is not for you to say that there are problems or that everything is fine. It is to come up with tangible solutions so the team can implement and test again.
Heuristic evaluations can help you find gaps in your websites or applications that can be improved. Also, they help you become a better designer by performing them because it helps you avoid the same mistakes over and over when designing apps. Thus, I recommend practicing with popular websites to get better at it. Finally, it is cheaper because you can find a lot of mistakes quickly without having to schedule interviews or usability tests with users. I hope you can use this technique at work so the team can design the best product that meets your users’ needs.