How to conduct a heuristic evaluation in UX design: a step-by-step guide

In this blog, we’ll review exactly what a heuristic evaluation is and what heuristics are, as well as when you should perform a heuristic evaluation in the design process.

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Heuristic evaluations study the usability of a product before it’s tested by end users. Evaluators judge an interface using a set of guidelines, called heuristics, during these evaluations to make sure the UX design is user-friendly. 

In the following, we’ll review exactly what a heuristic evaluation is and what heuristics are, as well as when you should perform a heuristic evaluation in the design process. 

We’ll also look at the pros and cons of a heuristic evaluation and cover the 10 usability heuristics of Jakob Nielsen, one of the most popular sets of heuristics to use for an evaluation. We’ll conclude by providing a step-by-step guide to conducting a heuristic evaluation.  

Let’s get started!

What is heuristic evaluation in UX design?

A heuristic evaluation is a review of the design of your user interface, specifically used to identify usability issues and other design problems. 

It’s conducted using a set of heuristics and helps identify many UX problems before they’re seen, or experienced, by end users. That’s because heuristic evaluations are conducted by usability experts who are, hopefully, also experts in the industry your website or product is in. 

What are heuristics?

Heuristics are general guidelines or rules of thumb that are used to evaluate your work. In UX design, there are no hard and fast rules that you can follow to guarantee your designs will be perfect, so heuristics are used to guide you through the design process and evaluate your work during an evaluation. 

There are many guides to the heuristics you can use for a heuristic evaluation. For example, Jakob Nielsen’s usability heuristics are popular, or you can choose some of David Travis’ 247 Web Usability Guidelines. You can either use one of these or design your own heuristics.

When should you perform a heuristic evaluation?

Heuristic evaluations can be particularly helpful when they’re conducted early in the design process. At this point, it takes less time and effort to change things, so if a major usability issue is uncovered, it is less of an ordeal. 

Kate Moran and Kelley Gordon of the Nielsen Norman group point out that conducting heuristic evaluations can also be a good way to develop good UX instincts. So if you’re new to UX, use heuristic evaluations on all kinds of products to train yourself to catch common usability issues.

The pros and cons of heuristic evaluation

There are positives and negatives to heuristic evaluations. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Pros of heuristic evaluation

  • They can pinpoint usability issues early in the design process 
  • It’s easier and cheaper when compared with other research and testing methods—although note that heuristic evaluations are not a replacement for thorough user research
  • They can be fast to conduct and get results

Cons of heuristic evaluation

  • Finding and training usability experts may impact the time and budget required
  • While heuristics provide good guidelines, those guidelines aren’t set in stone. As a result, heuristic evaluations aren’t a substitute for end user testing.
  • Evaluators may list issues that aren’t really problems within a user interface. To limit this possibility, include at least three evaluators and have a debriefing session to root out misreporting’s impact on the interface.

Jakob Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics

While there are over 200 heuristics a site can be evaluated by, many experts’ criteria are based on Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich’s usability heuristics. Nielsen, co-founder and principal at Nielsen Norman Group, and Molich, a usability consultant, came up with these 10 usability heuristics in the 1990s and they’ve remained relevant and unchanged for all this time. They are:

  1. Visibility of system status: The system should always keep users informed about what’s going on behind the scenes.
  2. Match between the system and the real world: Make sure the conventions you use match what the individual is using in the real world. For instance, use words and phrases that are familiar to the user and not internal jargon. 
  3. User control and freedom: Users often make mistakes. They should be able to quickly undo an action or back out of a situation without going through an extended process.
  4. Consistency and standards: Follow platform (internal) and industry (external) conventions. 
  5. Error prevention: Plan for errors. Prevent user errors when possible and have good error messages that allow users to easily recover the rest of the time.
  6. Recognition rather than recall: Don’t expect users to recall information. The user shouldn’t have to remember information across the interface, while information required to use the system, like field labels or menu items, should be visible or easy to retrieve.
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use: Allow frequent users to customise the interface to their needs, but make sure that infrequent users can still use the system with ease.
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design: Interfaces shouldn’t contain irrelevant or rarely needed information. Instead, the content and visual design should be focused on the essentials. 
  9. Help users recognise, diagnose, and recover from errors: Error messages should be expressed in plain language that indicates the problem and suggests a solution.
  10. Help and documentation: Help and documentation should be concise, easily searchable, and focused on the user’s task.

How to conduct a heuristic evaluation in UX: A step-by-step guide

The details of heuristic evaluations change from project to project, but there are a set of steps that each evaluation can follow. Here’s a framework you can use to conduct a heuristic evaluation:

Set the scope

First, set the scope of the evaluation. Keep in mind that the narrower the scope, the easier and more thorough the evaluation will be. The team can look at one task at a time, one section of the product, or something else, but whatever it is, the focus should be narrow so things stay manageable.

Train your team

Teams should train by first reviewing and understanding the heuristics included in the evaluation. Next, evaluators can do a practice round with a simple interface to ensure that everyone on the team understands what they’re expected to do. 

Heuristic evaluations work best when performed by a team of three to five independent evaluators of the same user interface.  

Decide how to document your evaluations

Evaluators need to note their observations in a standardised place, so find a place to

collect observations and stick to it. You could use a spreadsheet like Excel or Google spreadsheets, a digital whiteboard with a tool like Miro or Mural, or Nielsen Norman Group’s heuristic evaluation workbook. As long as everyone does the same thing and independent evaluators don’t see the rest of the team’s evaluations until theirs is complete, any form of documentation should work.

Become familiar with the product

Each team member will have a set amount of time — typically 1-2 hours — to perform their evaluation on their own. Before looking for problems, they need to become familiar with the product. Go through the task once just to learn it without trying to evaluate anything. 

Look for issues

Once team members feel comfortable with the system, they should go back through the task, this time looking for anything that violates the heuristics that were chosen for the evaluation. Write down issues wherever the team is keeping notes and, if possible, include a recommendation for fixing the issue.

Collect results and identify problems

Once everyone has performed their independent evaluations, the whole team should meet to gather the issues they came up with and figure out where they agree and where they disagree. This is where the team discusses which problems seem most detrimental to the experience, which issues they need more data on, and what steps can be taken in the short and long term to address these issues.

The takeaway

Heuristic evaluations are one of the many tools UX designers have to make sure a user interface is the best it can be. While a heuristic evaluation isn’t a substitute for user testing, it can be a good way to rule out glaring errors early. 

If you’d like to learn more about other forms of research, read: What is user research, Why UX testing is so important for your product , and The top 5 AI-powered tools for user research (and how to use them)

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