What Is A Heuristic Evaluation?

Posted / 02 November, 2021

Author / Enginess

UX heuristic

In this article, we look at what a heuristic evaluation is, when it’s best to use it, and what limitations a heuristic evaluation might have.

The UX toolbox has an enormous range of methods and techniques to help designers know what users want and expect from a particular design.

One of the simplest techniques that they deploy is the Heuristic Evaluation.

In this article, we look at what a heuristic evaluation is, when it’s best to use it, and what limitations a heuristic evaluation might have.


What is a heuristic Evaluation?

A heuristic evaluation, often called an expert review, is basically a user experience (UX) designer evaluating a design against a list of user experience tenants.

These tenants (or best practices) are usually variations on Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for UI Design.

Whenever the UX designer sees something that doesn’t quite satisfy their best practices, they make a note and a recommendation on what to do about it. It’s important to remember that these principles, while often based on the original 10, can be tweaked and tailored to a specific design and of course are the subjective opinion of the UX designer (after all, design isn’t a science).

For example, let’s say you have a website and are getting a UX designer to conduct a heuristic evaluation. One of the tenants they might be looking for is visual consistency – does stuff that’s the same look the same throughout the website?

So if they come across a heading that is in Wingdings instead of Arial, they’ll make a note of it and what they recommend you do about it. That’s of course a very simple example, and you probably don’t have to be a UX designer to know that all your headings should look the same (and not be in Wingdings). But you get the idea.


What’s a Heuristic Evaluation Good For?

To make the most of heuristic evaluations, most designers recommend they be used at the start or at the end of a design process. At the start, especially if it’s a redesign, it helps clarify:

  • What and how much needs to be changed to improve the user experience
  • The scope of the project, based on an expert analysis (rather than inexpert opinion)

At the end of the design and build process, a heuristic evaluation is a good, cost-effective way to essentially QA the user experience before launch.

Are things where they’re supposed to be? Does the content match the context of where it is? Will the language and design used resonate with the users that the project’s intended for?

These are questions that are better answered prior to – rather than just after – launch.

For example, imagine that an ecommerce website has just been developed. It’s a great user experience, completely ready to launch. But when a user makes a mistake in the checkout screen, recovering from it requires them to go right back to the start and pick out their items again.

That would be super frustrating, but a heuristic would likely catch that problem and recommend a fix – make user error recoverable. Prior to launch, fixes like that are far simpler.


What are the limitations of a heuristic evaluation?

There’s no one technique to rule them all. The heuristic is a great place to start or finish a UX design project. But its biggest weakness is that it doesn’t actually entail talking to real life users.

It’s an analysis based on experience, proven rules of thumb, and trained expertise; but at the end of the day, it’s really the users who should shape the experience.

Without user input, an expert (even the best expert!) can only take you so far.

Today, heuristics are often stand-alone projects: quick to turn out, minimal investment, and the client gets an improved experience for the users.

But the heuristic was actually intended to be used in conjunction with user testing. We recommend that at least some user testing goes along with it.

Let’s take our example of helping people recover from errors in an ecommerce site. The principle is that users should be able to figure out how to recover from errors without very much effort or hassle.  The experience of the UX designer says the same thing. So the recommendation is to make it easier to recover.

But maybe in this case, users don’t actually mind going back to the start. Instead, it’s something else that really bugs them, like the pictures of the product are too small. Insights like that only come from talking to people.

The heuristic review is a fast and affordable way to generally improve user experience. But to really get the most out of your UX dollars, you’re best off with a heuristic/testing combination.     


Conclusion

The heuristic evaluation is a powerful tool. By following established user experience principles,  it can be a real asset by:

  • Pointing a design in the right direction
  • Catching last-minute problems with an experience
  • Enhancing the user experience quickly and effectively

However, the only way to make an experience that users actually look forward to engaging with is to actually talk to people and see what they think, so you solve their specific problems, rather than problems you think they’ll have.

After all, in user experience, the user is king.

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