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Michael Hartman
Michael Hartman

As Sandstorm's Technology and Usability Director, Michael leads our developers and usability researchers in creating web sites and applications—both desktop and mobile—that embody our favorite blend: intuitive user experience and dynamic Drupal development.

Types of User Research - Part 4: Heuristic Evaluation

A heuristic evaluation is the review of your website or software by a usability expert to identify any usability problems. This typically involves scoring your site against commonly recognized usability best practices (the heuristics) and may also include running through a series of tasks or use cases. It is a more informal research method than usability testing with your end users.

Why should I use this approach?

Heuristic evaluations help:

  • Identify usability issues when testing with real users is not possible or practical
  • Benchmark your site against recognized usability standards
  • Check your site for accessibility issues and Section 508 or WCAG 2.0 compliance

When should I conduct a heuristic evaluation?

You can conduct an evaluation to:

  • Improve an existing system when you are unable to do a usability study
  • Gauge the current user experience when you take over maintenance or management of an existing website or application
  • Meet certain site compliance standards (such as 508 or WCAG 2.0)

A second option for usability testing

While we prefer testing with end users, a heuristic evaluation is a reasonable substitute for a usability study when a study with your site users is not possible or practical. There are some things to keep in mind when you decide to make this substitution:

  • You will be missing the context and nuances of testing with real site users, particularly in uncovering issues with content and labeling
  • A heuristic evaluation doesn’t necessarily prioritize the issues found

When clients come to us to test an existing site, it usually doesn’t make sense to do both a heuristic evaluation and a usability study. You get the most insight by testing with your users in a usability study, but if that’s not possible, a heuristic evaluation is a reasonable substitute.

How do I conduct a heuristic evaluation?

Here is an outline of a process to follow:

1. Define your heuristics. There are several good lists available online. Jakob Nielsen has developed a standard list of website heuristics that are commonly used. We’ve adapted several sources to create our own set of heuristics. From a high level you want to answer some basic questions like:

  • Is the system intuitive to use?
  • Is the user experience consistent?
  • Does the user have a sense of control?
  • Is it clear to the user what they should do?
  • Is it clear to the user where they are in the system?
  • Does the system provide feedback to the user about how to correct errors?
  • Is help provided?
  • Is the user interface aesthetically pleasing?

Some of the questions we use to get there include:

  • Are navigation and page titles easy to find and use?
  • Are links easy to identify?
  • Are font sizes and spacing easily readable?
  • Is the color contrast between design elements stark enough for easy legibility?
  • Is it clear what each action does?
  • Is it clear what path to take?
  • Are error messages provided and are they clear and easy to understand?
  • Does the site work well on multiple devices and smaller screens?

2. Conduct the analysis. We use a collaborative form on Google Drive to list the heuristics, score each one, and note our comments. When practical, we have more than one usability expert conduct the analysis and compare notes.

3. Analyze the results. Then you can make improvements to your site.

The end result of this evaluation is a research report with key findings and recommendations.

Putting all user research methods together

There is both an art and science to all of the research methods covered in this four part series. This is particularly true when it comes to interpreting results and finding solutions. What looks like a single usability issue might actually be a symptom of a larger problem.

Some answers will be clear while others may require a bit more digging. In any case, you will inevitably find ways to improve the user experience. With practice, the art of user research and testing will come.

The real key is to talk to your users and involve them in the design process. It’s important to talk with them about their needs for your site and your business. By listening to your users, you’ll be on your way to building valuable and intuitive experiences that will keep them coming back.

[Ed. - Be sure to read Michael’s previous posts on user research approaches: In-Depth User Interviews, Card Sorting with Tree Testing, and Usability Testing.]

This blog was posted by Michael on November 14, 2014.
Michael Hartman

About the Author

Michael Hartman

As Sandstorm's Technology and Usability Director, Michael leads our developers and usability researchers in creating web sites and applications—both desktop and mobile—that embody our favorite blend: intuitive user experience and dynamic Drupal development.

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