A guide to conducting a heuristic evaluation

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Anyone working in the UX industry has, at some point in their career, come across the term ‘heuristic evaluation’. It’s a popular method used by many UX professionals to evaluate user interface design. But for those who are new to the field, or haven’t heard of it before, it’s a relatively easy topic to understand, and something that will benefit you in the design process.

Before you dive into your own heuristic evaluation, take some time to learn what they are, what’s involved, and how to conduct one.

What is a heuristic evaluation?

A heuristic evaluation can basically be defined as a review of your user interface, looking closely at user experience aspects. It helps to identify many kinds of user experience problems and is conducted against a set of design principles — also known as heuristics (hence the name!).

Undertaking a heuristic evaluation has many benefits:

  • They can be performed at any stage during the design process. However, conducting one at the very beginning means you get feedback early on.
  • You can conduct them before or alongside other usability testing methods, such as tree testing or card sorting.
  • They can be much easier and cheaper to conduct than other research methods e.g., large scale in-person user research or other field research.
  • Depending on what you’re evaluating, they can be quite fast to conduct and obtain results.

While heuristic evaluations have their many benefits, one of their biggest disadvantages is the need for experienced evaluators to conduct the study. In a research paper titled “Finding usability problems through heuristic evaluation”, Nielsen Norman Group Principal Jakob Nielsen stated that the method is effective when evaluators are usability experts. These professionals can be hard to come by and can affect your budget.

Fortunately, other research from Nielsen states you only need to have at least three individual evaluators to conduct a heuristic evaluation.

“Averaged over six of my projects, single evaluators found only 35 percent of the usability problems in the interfaces,” Nielsen said.

Obviously, the more experts taking part in the evaluation means you can surface more usability problems. However, you run the risk of breaching an optimal cost-benefit ratio, as well as surfacing many more problems than you have resources to fix. According to Nielsen, three is a great number to settle on.

Heuristics for user interface design

There are many different sets of heuristics that you can evaluate for user interface and usability design, but one of the most well known in the UX industry is Nielsen’s Heuristics. Developed by Jakob Nielsen along with Usability Consultant Rolf Molich in 1990, this set of 10 heuristics covers:

  • Prevention error: Well-functioning error messages are good, but instead of messages, can these problems be removed in the first place? Remove the opportunity for slips and mistakes to occur.
  • Consistency and standards: Language, terms, and actions used should be consistent to not cause any confusion.
  • Control and freedom for users: Give your users the freedom and control to undo/redo actions and to exit out of situations if needed.
  • System status visibility: Let your users know what’s going on with the site. Is the page they’re on currently loading, or has it finished loading?
  • Design and aesthetics: Cut out the unnecessary information and clutter to enhance visibility. Keep things in a minimalist style.
  • Help and documentation: Ensure that information is easy to find for users, isn’t too large and is focused on your users’ tasks.
  • Recognition, not recall: Make sure that your users don’t have to rely on their memories. Instead, make options, actions and objects visible. Provide instructions for use too.
  • Provide a match between the system and the real world: Does the system speak the same language and use the same terms as your users? If you use a lot of jargon, make sure that all users can understand by providing an explanation or using other terms that are familiar to them. Also ensure that all your information appears in a logical and natural order.
  • Flexibility: Is your interface easy to use and it is flexible for users? Ensure your system can cater to users to all types, from experts to novices.
  • Help users to recognize, diagnose and recover from errors: Your users should not feel frustrated by any error messages they see. Instead, express errors in plain, jargon-free language they can understand. Make sure the problem is clearly stated and offer a solution for how to fix it.

Another notable set of heuristics for evaluation is this one from Susan Weinschenk and Dean Barker.

Conducting your heuristic evaluation

There are a few steps involved with conducting a heuristic evaluation:

  1. Figure out what you’re evaluating and when. Are there specific parts of your website that you want to evaluate, or will it be the whole thing? If you have more than one evaluator, determine when each person will conduct their evaluation. Don’t forget to keep your users in mind for each of your heuristics.
  2. Evaluate your heuristics. Your evaluators can begin performing all of your pre-identified tasks. During this part of the process, your evaluators should note down each issue that they identify, where it was found, and provide a recommendation for how to improve or fix it. Make sure all notes are clear and in-depth so there’s no confusion with others involved in the process. Screenshots, URLs and collaborative documents can be very handy here.
  3. Analyze findings and fix the issues. Once your evaluators have completed their reviews, it’s time to collate the findings and take out any duplicates. If your evaluators have done a good job at step number two, you should have a lot of the data ready to go into a report, whether that’s for a client or colleagues. From there, these issues need to be remedied and then you can begin user testing.

While there aren’t any specific heuristic evaluation tools and software out there, you can use other kinds of usability tools when conducting your evaluation. For example, if your results show you that you need to make changes to your information architecture or categories, you can use Treejack and OptimalSort to achieve this.

Another tool that can come in handy is Reframer. This qualitative research platform allows you and your team of evaluators to note down observations as they’re surfaced during the process. With the ability to tag notes in sessions, you’ll be able to review any recurring issues that your evaluators identified. And to complete the Optimal Workshop toolset you’ll find Chalkmark comes in handy if you need to get some data to back up a recommendation from your heuristic evaluation.

Heuristic evaluation example report

If you’re looking for an example of heuristic analysis for UX and UI, there are many cases and templates available online.

Here are a couple of the many we spotted:

This example from evaluators Laura Jasinski, Elisa Rivera and Jamil Wilkins runs through an analysis of a university website using Nielsen's heuristics. 

This is another more detailed evaluation performed by Nathan Atkins, Laurie Bennett, Brian Domit, and Jeffrey Jones that is also based on Nielsen's heuristics.

Further reading:

  • "How to conduct a heuristic evaluation" - This article from Nielsen Norman Group Principal Jakob Nielsen discusses some of the aspects involved in heuristic evaluations and the maths behind picking your team of evaluators.
  • "An overview of expert heuristic evaluations" - This article from UX Matters covers some of the different heuristics you can evaluate and how to report your results.
  • "Web usability guide" - This article from our blog explains some of the basics of web usability and some of the testing methods involved.
Published on May 05, 2016
Max Koh
  • Max Koh
  • Max is Optimal Workshop's UX writer/word person, resident cat whisperer and Samoyed enthusiast. Connect with her on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/marishakoh

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