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Heuristic Evaluation 

What is it?

Heuristic evaluation is a variation of usability inspection where usability specialists judge whether each element of a user interface follows established usability principles. This method is the part of the so-called "discount usability engineering" method.

Basically, heuristic evaluation is a fancy name for having a bunch of experts scrutinize the interface and evaluate each element of the interface against a list of commonly accepted principles--heuristics. Early lists of heuristics were quite long, resulting in tedious evaluation sessions and tired experts. These long lists rather defeated the purpose of this method, which was to save time and money over testing. Nielsen distilled his list of heuristics down to ten that have served him and others well in evaluating designs.

How do I do it?

Get some experts

Gather a group of experts to perform the evaluation. Of course, the more experts you get to look at the interface, the more problems you'll find, but the cost goes up. In an analysis of six studies, Nielsen found that three to five evaluators detected most of the usability problems.

Some caveats should be made about selecting your experts. You'll want experts who are, well, experts, and know what they're doing. These folks should have a broad background in usability evaluation and human-computer interface (HCI) design. It might be hard to find an expert that knows the subject matter of the product ("domain knowledge") in addition to HCI expertise, but if you can, you'll get a lot out of that person. An example would be in evaluating do-it-yourself tax software--could you find an person who is an expert in HCI and tax accounting?

Experts evaluate on their own, then compare findings

Once you have your experts, send them off to perform their evaluation individually. They need to look at the interface on their own so that they don't get biased by their fellow evaluators. You'll need to provide them with the proper roles and scenarios to use so they'll have the right mindset and perspective when interacting with the product. If the users of the product will get job aids like manuals or online help, provide these to your experts as well. You want them to evaluate the total package.

The expert will go through the interface at least twice, looking at each element of the interface (for example, each menu item, button, control, affordance, whatever) and evaluating its design, location, implementation, etc. in regards to the list of heuristics.

Experts provide feedback

When each expert performs an evaluation, he or she can provide feedback in a number of ways. The following are a few of these feedback methods:

Structured Report: The expert writes up a formal report about his or her findings. This is probably the easiest to digest, since the evaluator will have compiled all of his or her notes and summarized things in the report, but it might delay the turnaround time.

Verbalized Findings: While evaluating the interface, the expert dictates his or her findings to another person. Although this adds the cost of another person, this can discover other problems that might be missed if the experts need to write everything down themselves. Plus, unstructured comments like "What the #{*&%+@$ was the designer thinking?!?" can get captured this way.

Categories: Before sending the experts off to do their evaluations, everybody agrees on specific categories of problems that they'll log. While this is really easy to analyze, it probably misses some problems that the other methods might find.

The experts usually then reconvene to discuss their individual findings. Most of the time, you'll get back a summary report of all the usability problems found, even if individual evaluators disagreed on whether a particular thing was a problem or not. Most reports provide the heuristic(s) that were violated by the problem, giving you an idea of how to fix it.

When should I use this technique?

Heuristic evaluation can be used at almost any time during the development cycle, although it's probably best suited to earlier stages, when you don't have anything firm enough to test. You can provide the experts with paper mockups, or even just design specifications, and still get a good amount of usability problems discovered before actual production work begins.

Who can tell me more?

Click on any of the following links for more information:

Instone, Keith, "Site Usability Evaluation".

Instone, Keith, "Usability Heuristics for the Web".

Nielsen, Jakob, "Heuristic Evaluation: How-To".

Nielsen has a bunch of other papers on his site too at Check them out.

Nielsen, Jakob, and Mack, R. eds, Usability Inspection Methods, 1994, John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY.
ISBN 0-471-01877-5 (hardcover)

All content copyright © 1996 - 2016 James Hom