GuidesUser experience (UX)How to conduct a heuristic evaluation for UX design

How to conduct a heuristic evaluation for UX design

Last updated

21 February 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

You may have heard the term “heuristic evaluation” but you may be unsure what it is or how it pertains to you. After all, with all the testing you have done or are planning to do, do you really need another form of evaluation? 

Here, we try to answer your questions and guide you through the ways that heuristic evaluation can benefit you.

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What is heuristic evaluation?

Heuristic evaluation is an analysis that is used to compare a digital product's design to a list of principles that detect issues with usability and performance. Heuristics are simply predetermined guidelines. The evaluation is designed to determine whether the product is in line with the guidelines and, if not, identify methods to resolve the issues.  

The reason for doing a heuristic evaluation is to test a website or other digital product for user-friendliness. Usability experts review the product by creating guidelines to test it before it is marketed. A heuristic evaluation is based on standards, rules, and best practices to maximize the success of your UX designs.

Some evaluators refer to heuristics as rules of thumb. There are numerous ways to evaluate a product, but heuristic analysis focuses on the usability of the product and can differ from cognitive walkthroughs and user testing.

What is the difference between heuristic analysis, cognitive walkthroughs, and user testing?

You may be thinking that a heuristic evaluation is just like a cognitive walkthrough, right?  Or maybe you think you don't need it because you already have employed user testing to evaluate your product.  

Though some may use these phrases interchangeably, they do have their distinct differences. A deeper dive into these types of analyses can clarify how they are different and how they are similar. 

Cognitive walkthrough

Like heuristic evaluation, cognitive walkthrough is another type of inspection that focuses on usability. However, cognitive walkthrough focuses on user learnability and is evaluated by a new user who performs specific tasks to determine if the process of getting from task to goal is in the order that they were designed.  

In other words, cognitive walkthrough determines whether a new user can “walk through” the product easily, able to get to the information that they are looking for. It is different from heuristic evaluation because a new user is unfamiliar with the product, tests, its exploration capacity, and its user-friendliness.     

User testing

User testing is similar to heuristic evaluation in that it also tests usability. User testing, just like it sounds, is performed by the end-user in realistic circumstances. The goal of user testing is to determine the process, length of time, and difficulty that is involved in typical tasks in real-life situations.  

Heuristic analysis

One of the primary differences between heuristic analysis and user testing and cognitive walkthrough is that it is performed by a system expert who uses predefined guidelines, or heuristics, to see if the product can be used in a way that users find compatible and easy to navigate. This evaluation helps determine problems and how to resolve any issues that the user may encounter.

Usability heuristics

Jakob Nielsen, a Danish usability researcher and creator of the heuristic evaluation process, developed a list of ten general principles for evaluating usability for UX design. He considers these heuristics to be broad rules of thumb, adaptable to different applications.  

The list is as follows: 

1. Visibility of system status

This guideline stipulates that users are informed about the status of the system and what outcome can result from their prior actions to help determine the user's next steps. This should happen in a reasonable amount of time, if not immediately.  

2. Match between the system and the real world

What Nielsen means here is that the system language should reflect those terms familiar to the users. The language used in the product should be easily identifiable, avoiding technical jargon that the intended user would find hard to understand.  

If the product is designed for a particular group, for example, or a product to be used in a certain industry, industrial-themed words are acceptable as long as they are common and easily understood by the end user.

3. User control and freedom

This heuristic addresses giving the user the ability to exit or undo a task when they make a mistake. They still remain in control without the feeling of frustration or irritation when they cannot navigate out of an error.

4. Consistency and standards

 Keeping the same language throughout the system is essential to avoid confusion for the user. The same words, icons, and symbols should be used across all activities so that users always know that each command or activity has the same result, regardless of where in the system they are.

5. Error prevention

This heuristic simply means that there must be ways to avoid actions or warn users when there is a risk to the action they are taking. For example: "Are you sure you want to delete _____?"  

6. Recognition, not recall

In the same way that Nielsen shows that error prevention and user control are necessary, he includes this heuristic to take the burden off the user to remember items or system navigation. Menu items and drop-downs make it easy for users to access information easily without having to recall how to get there.

7. Flexibility and ease of use

This guideline is simply to allow users of any skill or experience level to navigate through the same product.

8. Cut out the clutter

Think minimalistic design, in that the fewer the distractions, the better the user experience.

9. Make help functions easy to understand

If a problem arises, provide simple, easy-to-follow instructions to solve it. Users, most likely, are not coders, so do not use language that they cannot understand.

10. Help and document

This final heuristic is to provide easy-to-understand documentation for any problems that arise.  

Using heuristic analysis for a usability evaluation

Now that we understand what heuristic evaluation is, it is important to know why and when to do it. Of course, each platform is unique, and developers will want to tweak the heuristics to define their own applications more. Your goal is to minimize any issues or design deficiencies while offering users an optimal experience.  

Why conduct a heuristic evaluation?

The answer here is to guarantee your product's effectiveness, optimal usability, and easy navigation for all users. The process will help you collect information on any problems so that they may be resolved and improve the user experience.

When should heuristic evaluation be done?

Before you roll your product out to end users, system experts can begin to develop and define the heuristics. Once they have been defined, they can begin evaluation before you move on to testing through cognitive walkthroughs or user testing.  

This evaluation can be done more than once if issues are found in the initial test. Once issues are resolved, the product can be re-tested until the system experts have a comfort level that allows it to be tested by users.

For products already released, but perhaps not performing up to expectations, a heuristic evaluation can be done to quickly identify “low hanging fruit” or easy, yet effective, fixes and tweaks to a product. 

Often when it’s difficult or too time-consuming to conduct either user tests or cognitive walkthrough studies, an internal heuristic evaluation offers data-backed solutions without much upfront cost in time or money.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of heuristic evaluation?

In deciding whether a heuristic evaluation for your UX design is right for you, consider the advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages:

  • Quick results

  • Cost-effective

  • You can design your own set of heuristics to identify specific problems for your user

  • You can conduct a heuristic evaluation at the same time as other methods

  • Find easy-to-fix problems resulting in more effective products

Disadvantages:

  • There may be a shortage of system experts to do the evaluation and hiring new evaluators may not give you accurate results

  • Some flagged areas may not correctly reflect a user's real-life experience

How to conduct an effective heuristic evaluation

A successful heuristic evaluation is dependent on the scope of your evaluation, the heuristics that you determine, and the evaluators conducting the analysis. To get the best results, use these five steps as a road map:

Step 1: Define the scope of your evaluation

Determine what you want to test, such as the entire product or perhaps a marketing site.

Step 2: Know your end-user 

Know who your target audience is and the application of the product.

Step 3: Choose your set of heuristics

You should be able to adapt some of Nielsen's heuristics to evaluate your own product, then add additional criteria depending on your system or design.

Step 4: Set up an evaluation system and identify issues

Decide how you want to handle the way issues are identified and the next steps in the process.

Step 5: Analyze and summarize the findings

Once your findings have been recorded, decide if further heuristic evaluation is needed.

Should you pay for a heuristic evaluation or do it yourself?

You are already working with a crew of UX designers, so why should you spend the money to hire someone else? That's a question only you can answer.  

While your system experts are great system designers and you are already paying them, they could be a bit biased. Are you sure there would be no bias involved, even if unintentional?

Would hiring system experts be worth the cost of user testing that results in huge problems down the road because your in-house evaluators weren't totally objective? If the cost of outsourcing your heuristic evaluation is prohibitive for you, perhaps you can look into a smaller number of evaluators used in conjunction with your staff of designers.

FAQs

How do you write a heuristic evaluation?

The heuristic evaluation report begins with determining the segments you want to evaluate and the heuristics you are analyzing. Once the tasks are performed by evaluators, they are compiled, evaluated, and resolved. The evaluation includes all the steps involved in the process. 

What is the heuristic evaluation function in AI?

There is a heuristic evaluation function in artificial intelligence that maps from a state of a problem to a number.

How long does a heuristic evaluation take?

The amount of time for a heuristic evaluation depends on the complexity of the product, the amount of testing to be completed, and the number of evaluators working on the project.

How many participants are usually recruited for a heuristic evaluation?

For the most complex products and systems, there could be several evaluators. However, for small tests, a single evaluator may be used.

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