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New techniques for heuristic evaluations: How they can help you ensure maximum usability in new apps

Building any product is hard. It’s even harder to build a product that people love and use to solve their problems regularly. Chances are, you won’t get everything right the first time, but there are proven methods to reduce errors and make the user experience the best it can possibly be. One of these methods is known as heuristic evaluation.

What exactly is heuristic evaluation? Glad you asked. A heuristic evaluation is a way to test the usability of an application and identify problems with its user interface. The main purpose is to identify any challenges with the design of a product or application’s user interface. This process is often categorized as a subset of usability testing in human-computer interaction and was made popular by Rolf Molich and Jakob Nielsen. You can learn about Nielsen’s 10 user interface design heuristics here.

Heuristics are general best practices for user interaction design. Examples of heuristics include making sure the system status displayed in the app is useful and ensuring that the app actively helps prevent user errors (rather than just displaying error messages). 

The best way to conduct a heuristic evaluation.

Since the beginning of the internet revolution, companies have used heuristics to provide the best experiences for their users. But now,  designers have started to develop their own heuristics to evaluate the applications and products they create.  The heuristics developed by Nielsen still hold value today, but technology has evolved to create a diverse set of conditions that didn’t exist before. 

Before you start, make sure you cover the basics. Here’s a quick guide to getting started:

  • Define your list of heuristics: Start with Nielsen’s 10 Heuristics as a stepping stone ,and go from there.
  • Find the right evaluators: When selecting evaluators, try to find people who are usability experts with domain knowledge of the segment you are designing for. With the right evaluators, understanding the tasks to be done makes it a bit easier. If needed, brief the evaluators thoroughly on what is expected of them.
  • Evaluation phase: An evaluation session usually takes 45 minutes to two hours and can happen in two phases. In each phase, evaluators should adhere to the same heuristics, but differ slightly in the areas they focus on.
  • Identify problems: Each evaluator should identify problems with the application user interface independently of others. This helps to shield against any biases from others. For each problem discovered, the evaluator should record their findings in as much detail as possible.
  • Discussing results: To end the heuristic evaluation, evaluators can discuss their findings and share opinions or feedback with the facilitator.

How to measure the effectiveness of a heuristic evaluation

Choosing a  heuristic approach for a usability evaluation is mostly determined by the cost and its effectiveness. In some scenarios where cost is a constraint, using a single individual as an evaluator is not recommended because one person might not be able to find every usability challenge.  I’ve learned that you can significantly improve the effectiveness of this method by involving multiple evaluators.

Some common concerns of heuristic evaluation include: Can you trust a few people as opposed to a larger group?  How can you know if the problems identified aren’t just the opinions of the evaluators?  And how many problems identified are false positives?

To verify how effective a heuristic evaluation of an application is, consider backing up your test with other usability testing methodologies. Also, try to conduct tests at different stages in the design process, and not just at the end of a milestone.

Additionally, conducting a heuristic evaluation before doing further user testing allows a lot of errors to be discovered before you engage in time-consuming, expensive user testing sessions. The most effective approach to uncovering usability problems is to combine both heuristic evaluations and usability testing. You’ll be able to judge the effectiveness of your evaluation, and this way you are doubly sure of your design decisions.

Kehinde Akinnusoye
With a background in Civil Engineering, Kehinde had an early start designing for both impact and scale. Guided by the belief that “good design is deliberate“, he seeks to create solutions that are equally intentional and balanced in form and function. Currently, he teaches design and works with brands to discover their unique advantage through design.

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