Foundation Series: Heuristic Evaluation

usability classroom

A heuristic evaluation (or heuristic analysis) is a quick, low-cost usability analysis of the design of a user interface. Pareto’s rule tells us that we can get 80% of the results from 20% of the effort. And that’s where discount usability tests like a heuristic evaluation come in to play. Formal, and more detailed usability studies yield better results – but cost more and take more time. A small investment can pay off big with a heuristic evaluation.

Heuristic Evaluation

The Nielsen Norman Group defines heuristic evaluation as follows:

Heuristic evaluation is the most popular of the usability inspection methods. Heuristic evaluation is done as a systematic inspection of a user interface design for usability. The goal of heuristic evaluation is to find the usability problems in the design so that they can be attended to as part of an iterative design process. Heuristic evaluation involves having a small set of evaluators examine the interface and judge its compliance with recognized usability principles (the “heuristics”).

Jakob Nielsen

Relative Usefulness of Usability Methods

In another article of Nielsen’s, we see the results of surveys about different usability methods and their usefulness. One of the figures from that article shows this stunning graph.

usability graph

[source: Technology Transfer of Heuristic Evaluation and Usability Inspection, Jakob Nielsen]

While user testing is the clear winner – both in usefulness and adoption, heuristic evaluation is a close second. The two of them are reportedly much more effective than all of the other tests.

Ten Usability Heuristics

Nielsen also shares with us a list of ten usability heuristics, or general principles to guide user interface design. His list goes into more detail on each of the ten heuristics, essentially answering the following questions. You can think of it as a checklist.

  1. Does the system provide information about its status? [“Please wait while the system is updating”]
  2. Does the system use terms and language that are familiar to the user?
  3. Can mistakes easily be undone? [“Undo” and “How do I get back to where I was from here?”]
  4. Does the system use controls (buttons, links, words) to enable actions consistently [“Yes” vs. “OK” vs. “Apply”]
  5. Does the system help prevent common user errors?
  6. Is it easy for users to see what they can do, versus being forced to remember what they can do?
  7. Are there ways for expert users to be more efficient than novice users?
  8. Are users forced to filter out irrelevant information (minimalist design)?
  9. Do error messages help users to resolve the errors?
  10. Is the documentation searchable, task-centric, and precise with “how to” steps?

These are fantastic questions to answer (and there’s a right answer for each one). And they also represent very easy to understand ideas – which can be very helpful when trying to explain it to someone who thinks that HCI folks just make applications “sexy.”


Really bad user interface mistakes can be avoided quickly with heuristic evaluations. This is the best bang for the buck, when determining how to invest in user experience efforts.

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