Research & understanding

Heuristic evaluation (usability evaluation)

Ludovic Delmas
October 14, 2020

Heuristics are the best practices or principles of usability that have been tested and observed through extensive research. They are broad rules of thumb and not hard-and-fast usability rules. 

A heuristic evaluation is the analysis of an existing product or feature using these principles as the criteria for how usable a product is.  

If a product or feature doesn’t exist, it’s not possible to conduct a heuristic evaluation. After all, how could you evaluate something that’s not actually there?

Before moving on, we just want to make sure you don’t get caught up on the word heuristic. It’s not a word that you hear very often (unless you hang out with us). Plus, it sounds incredibly academic. So, anytime you hear “heuristic evaluation,” just think “usability evaluation.”

The Nielsen Norman Group came up with 10 usability heuristics for UI design. You can find them here. Just like the word heuristic, to us, their principles are also a bit too academic. 

That’s why we prefer the 8 usability principles based on principles created by Kit Unger, the VP of Design at Mural:

Clear and understandable

This one’s pretty straight forward and is the most important. Users should always know where they are, what they're doing, and what to do next. 

Immediate feedback

The system should always tell the user what is happening at any given point in time. 

Consistency and expectations

All touchpoints, including words, button placement, interactions, etc., should perform the same way everywhere and carry the same meaning across the entire experience. 

Information hierarchy

Present a clear hierarchy of information in the logical order. 

Error prevention and alleviation

A best practice is to anticipate and prevent errors before they even happen. Give users information about the potential consequences of their actions. If they end up in an error state, help them to get out of it. Don’t let them flounder in the deep end without sending a life raft. 

Cognitive overload

Avoid making someone process too many things at once. Show the user only what they need to see when they need to see it. Showing too much can be overwhelming and paralyzing. The user won’t know what to do next. 

Positive emotional engagement

Make users feel something positive from using your product. Present users with moments of delight when possible. We all love to be delighted. Sometimes small design interactions can do the trick. 

Simplicity and efficiency

Make things as simple, but no simpler than they need to be. Let new users understand what’s going on and become efficient using your product. Also give expert users the ability to speed up their workflow. Cater to both audiences.

Use a heuristic evaluation to:

Uncover usability problems in an existing product. 

Ensure a product follows tried and true design principles. 

Evaluate the usability of your wireframes, prototypes, or mockups.

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