Master usability testing through heuristic evaluation

October 7, 2024
10 minutes
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Your business would likely benefit from a usability inspection of its products or services. Every business owner can agree that testing how users perceive their product or service is a significant stride for customer retention.

If you're new to the SaaS world, you may be struggling to understand how to test your user experience and achieve meaningful data. The answer lies in heuristic evaluation.

In this article, we will outline the usability principles used during heuristic evaluation, how you can use such evaluations to measure your product's usability, and why it is important.

So, if you want to master the art of the cheapest and fastest user experience inspection method to reduce customer churn, keep reading.

Key takeaways

  • Usability heuristics explained
  • 10 usability heuristics for user interfaces
  • How to identify usability concerns
  • Questions to understand the specific set of heuristics you should test

What is heuristic evaluation (HE) and heuristic analysis?

Heuristic evaluation is the process of testing the usability of user interfaces (UI) with the goal of improving the user experience (UX). Such testing is performed by individuals who are experts in the field of UI/UX. Unlike testing with a group of users, these experts benchmark your app or software user interface against predefined heuristics.

Heuristics are sets of guidelines that will allow users to navigate your user interface with ease.

The aim of HE is to compare the usability of your product or service to others in your industry. As a result of the comparison, you will receive actionable and guiding insight into how to best approach iterations of your design. The iterations should improve your product or service and allow you to improve the overall experience for your customers. The actionable insights you will receive is the heuristic analysis, which results from your evaluation.

Generally, HE occurs early in the development process, so iterations can occur simultaneously, meaning it is best performed in agile sprints. Although debatable, our rationale for HE with design sprints using agile methodology is that it's best performed early in the development process.

But, there are no hard or fast rules to completing HE. Evaluation of your UI can be completed at later stages of development, too.

Effective Heuristic analysis vs. user testing for a usability evaluation and deciding the best testing method

User testing and heuristic analysis are not the same. But both are forms of user experience testing. User testing occurs when you interview, survey, or hold focus groups with groups of users. These can be people who already use your product, or they could be users you choose or hire. The difference between the two is the former is conducted by real users, not professionals well-versed in design. The latter is usually conducted by expert evaluators, resulting in cheaper and faster results, so your choice could be based on your needs and budget.

Both are effective and have their advantages and drawbacks. As user testing vs heuristic analysis is commonly discussed among business owners, let's outline the pros and cons of heuristic analysis. Then, you will know if it's a viable option for your business.

When using Heuristic Evaluation, it should produce expected deliverables.

As with all forms of testing, the typical deliverable you should receive after a heuristic evaluation is a consolidated report of expert findings.

The report will outline issues the experts encountered while using your product or service. Additionally, they will rank these problems by severity. The ranking of issues by severity can guide you in solving the issues, as it can serve as a roadmap for future iterations,

Unfortunately, the report does not outline solutions for the usability issues found. Your design team will need to find solutions and get creative. Still, a heuristic evaluation for usability testing has the following advantages:

  • Pinpoint usability issues
  • Cheaper, faster, and easier than other forms of user testing
  • HE can allow your evaluators to look at specific issues
  • There are no ethical or practical problems for user flows or overall impact of them

Like other forms of testing, not everything is positive. There are some drawbacks to HE when compared to focus groups, surveys, or interviews with users.

The disadvantages are:

  • The problems heuristic evaluators find will be directly related to their level of expertise
  • Hiring experienced usability experts can be costly
  • HE can find issues that may be false
  • HE can lead you to solve less important usability issues
  • HE is based on preconceived notions of what is good rather than real user experiences
  • Evaluators may be unaware of the limitations of your design and development team

What do you evaluate during a usability test?

In 1990, Jakob Nielsen produced a set of heuristics industry specialists that quickly began adopting. These principles are still used today and help you understand human-computer interactions. These fundamental aspects of any UI will help you make decisions for improvements quickly and practically.

In UX design, professional evaluators will systematically test each of these heuristics. They will use them as a checklist to find flaws that your design team may overlook. According to Nielsen heuristics, a system should meet the following standards for user experiences.

  • Appropriately and promptly inform users of their progress
  • Present information concisely and coherently
  • Give users control and allow them to correct errors swiftly
  • Offer consistency so users do not feel overwhelmed or confused
  • Warn users of risky actions with error messages for potential mistakes
  • Give instructions and guides so users do not need to remember how to use your product or service
  • Allow users flexibility to attain their goals faster
  • Be clear and clutter-free
  • Use the language of the user
  • Provide documentation of the steps needed to complete a task
  • Easily accessible documentation

What are the 10 Heuristics you should evaluate when conducting heuristic evaluations?

Understanding the heuristics set forth by Nielsen in the 1990s will allow you to understand the process of HE more intimately. You will understand how and why these are important. You'll make the connection between good usability and customer satisfaction.

We outline these heuristics and give you a brief description of each in the following paragraphs.

Visibility of system status

When you evaluate this heuristic, you aim to understand if you always keep users informed of what's happening in their web applications. Ideally your UI should keep users informed with feedback and indicators. This heuristic looks for such indicators and tells you if they're effective or not.

Match between the system and the real world

When you test the match of your system with the real world, you see if the icons you use will do as people expect. For example, in a search bar, people expect a magnifying glass. Not only because most applications have a magnifying glass on the search bar, but in the real world, we use magnifying glasses when we investigate something closely. If icons do not match user expectations, it can cause disconnect and confusion within your app or user interface. You must use icons and concepts familiar to the user if you want to increase adoption rates.

User control and freedom

The user control and freedom heuristic evaluates whether or not users can easily undo, redo, cancel, or exit the actions they take while using your product or service. Evaluators will ensure that users do not feel trapped in a section of your app when they test this heuristic.

Consistency and standards

User interfaces should use the same language throughout the entire design of a program or application. Without consistency, users will feel overwhelmed and have doubts about the meaning of words, icons, or symbols you have chosen.

Error Prevention

Before users take action on your app or service, they should be warned if there could be adverse consequences. Testing this heuristic will enable you to create better warnings that can prevent users from taking actions that could compromise their valuable data. When you either eliminate error-prone conditions or list concrete steps to resolve potential errors, you will see common usability issues disappear. Several usability issues arise because people make mistakes. They want to resolve or avoid these mistakes without having to go to your customer support page on the website.

Recognition rather than recall

Your system should have clear and accessible guides and instructions. When you require users to remember every step in a process that is required to complete an action on your platform, it produces cognitive overload. This heuristic will test the simplicity of completing an action by having resources available when users are unsure of the action they should take. It will reduce memory load by making processes easier for all customers.

Flexibility and efficiency of use

The guideline of this heuristic test is to ensure that you prioritize flexibility and efficiency by using shortcuts or giving users options to accelerate their task completion. Specifically, this aims to aid the expert user rather than the novice. You will improve the interaction for the expert user and enhance web usability for the novice user. For the experienced user, you speed up the interaction with your product.

Aesthetic and minimalist design

Your UI should emphasize uncluttered designs that users find appealing and easy on the eyes. It will allow them to focus on essential elements of a product without becoming overwhelmed with unnecessary information that can distract them. When you reduce clutter, it will keep people informed about what is going on in the workflow for their tasks. Many usability problems, especially clutter, will increase the rate at which people stop using your product.

Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors.

Your UI needs to include warnings and errors for potential mistakes users could make. These should clearly outline the consequences of taking such action so users understand the problem and teach them how to recover from it.

Help and documentation

Your UI needs to have helpful documentation such as guides or walkthroughs present. Users should be able to access this information quickly and easily so they do not feel overwhelmed. Your system should be usable without documentation, but if users need more guidance, can they access documentation quickly and easily?

With everything outlined so far, you may be wondering how you can complete a HE to improve your product or service. What good is knowing this information without being able to test it?

How to conduct a Heuristic Evaluation

When conducting a HE, there is a plan you can follow to ensure success. Success means you receive actionable insight that will allow you to improve your product's interface.

The steps are outlined below:

  1. Understand what to test and how to approach it.
  2. Understand your users and have a clear understanding of their goals and use cases.
  3. Choose evaluators, ideally 3-5.
  4. Define the heuristics you will test.
  5. Brief evaluators so they know what to test and how to test it.
  6. Allow evaluators time for a first walkthrough of your user interface.
  7. As evaluators, complete a second walkthrough to find anything they may have missed during the first.
  8. Meet with evaluators for a debrief to collect their data.

Let's outline each of these steps. By outlining them, we hope you can start a HE for your products and reap the immense rewards they offer.

Understand what to test.

When conducting HE, you need to have a clear goal in mind. You can define your goals by looking at customer support tickets, reviewing customer service calls, or reading what people have to say about your company on social media. When you review this information, take note of common issues or complaints. Armed with this information, you can define the goal of your evaluation and choose the heuristics you wish to test.

Once you have chosen the heuristics, you can begin testing.

Questions for choosing the heuristics you should evaluate

To choose the heuristics you will test:

  1. Bookmark this page and return to it later.
  2. Read the section about the top ten heuristics.
  3. Ask yourself the following questions to determine the best heuristics to test.

Questions for testing the visibility of system status

  1. Can users make changes confidently within your system with your current presentation of documentation and menus?
  2. Do you provide ample feedback for every action users take?
  3. Do users feel compelled to take action when they read information in your UI?

Questions for match between the system and real-world

  1. Do you use jargon-free language?
  2. Do you use the language and vocabulary of your target audience?
  3. At its core, does your design follow real-world principles?
  4. Is the real-world process reflected in your design?

Questions for user control and freedom

  1. Can users go backward in the process of completing an action?
  2. When users click "back," does it lead them to the expected page?
  3. Is it obvious how to go back in a process?
  4. When a user begins a process, can they quickly and easily cancel it?
  5. If a user takes an action, can they undo it with a single click?
  6. Can users quickly and easily identify the undo button?

Consistency and standards questions

  1. Does your UI meet user expectations of established conventions from their experiences with other apps?
  2. Can users consistently interact with your UI across various screens?
  3. Do all pages and components provide consistent information to users?

Questions to consider about preventing user errors

  1. Do you help users undo actions that led them to unacceptable outcomes?
  2. Do you contextually suggest interacting with your product using search bars and input fields?
  3. Are the default settings what users expect from an out-of-the-box product?
  4. Are input fields human-readable?

Questions for recognition rather than recall

  1. Can users make informed decisions based on the given context in your UI?
  2. Does the user need to remember how to complete tasks by memory?
  3. Is decoding the concepts introduced in your UI simple?
  4. Is it easy for users to access recently visited pages in your system?

Flexibility and efficiency of use questions

  1. Does your system account for the needs of various user roles ranging from novice to expert?
  2. Can people complete one task in multiple ways?
  3. Do accelerators aid experts to complete tasks more quickly while not overloading novices?

Aesthetic and minimalist design questions

  1. Do you have unnecessary elements that can confuse users when completing tasks?
  2. Are design principles guiding your visuals, and are they communicating with the user?
  3. Given the needs of your users, are the design elements appropriate?

Questions for recognizing, diagnosing, and recovering from errors

  1. When errors occur, does your UI notify users?
  2. Are you using plain language to tell users of the error?
  3. Are solutions simple to obtain?

Questions for help and documentation

  1. Do you support users with new features and updates?
  2. Is troubleshooting an issue simple?
  3. If a user has questions, is it simple to find answers?
  4. Is it easy for the user to find information relevant to their use case?
  5. Can users easily find answers to problems?
  6. Are relevant results from searches simple to find?
  7. Do you present information in appropriate forms, and do they help users achieve their intended outcome?


HE is an important aspect of product viability, its improvement, and retaining customers. High customer churn rates could be a sign your business court benefits from heuristics for user interface design, and HE is an excellent, cost-effective start. Even with all the information presented to you here, you may still have doubts about completing a heuristic evaluation.

Suppose doubts are consuming you, and you want to ensure you're not wasting money when conducting usability testing through a set of usability heuristics. In that case, we invite you to schedule a consultation with us. We are an experienced group of usability experts who specialize in creating customer experiences people love. We can help you turn customers into loyal advocates.

If you would like to meet us, click the yellow button in the upper right-hand corner of your screen.

Frequently asked questions

Is usability testing a heuristic evaluation?

Heuristic evaluation and customer testing are two different techniques for finding usability problems; heuristic evaluation involves evaluating a website or application against a checklist of best practices, while customer testing involves actual users interacting with and commenting on the product to eliminate error-prone conditions.

What is an example of heuristic evaluation?

An example of heuristic evaluation is providing an Undo button in Microsoft Word or a Back button in browsers so users can control or cancel actions without any confusion. Furthermore, the buttons should be clearly visible and easily discoverable.

How many evaluators should you use in a typical heuristic usability test?

For a typical heuristic evaluation, you should hire 2-5 evaluators. It will lead to a rigorous evaluation process that can uncover most usability issues and offer a significant return on investment. The team should be made up of experts in usability and the relevant industry, and they will need to receive some training and preparation before beginning their evaluation.

What are the primary differences between customer testing and heuristic evaluation?

Customer testing evaluates a product by observing actual user interactions, while heuristic evaluation is an expert-led process that assesses a product's usability by evaluating it against accepted usability guidelines.

How can I effectively combine UI testing and heuristic evaluation in my design process?

Combining the two in your design process can ensure a comprehensive assessment of usability, allowing you to refine and improve your product iteratively. It will reduce the number of usability issues, and you should view it as a valid evaluation method.

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