Sharpen Your Product’s Usability With This Tool

Heuristic analysis is a useful way to get multiple expert eyes on a product to evaluate its usability. Here’s a guide to getting started.

Written by Nick Babich
Published on Mar. 03, 2021
Sharpen Your Product’s Usability With This Tool
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Good usability is an essential property of any design. No matter how beautiful the product looks, if it’s not easy to use, people will abandon it.

There are a few ways a products usability can be evaluated, and one of the most effective is heuristic analysis. This method identifies key usability issues and allows you to find better product design solutions. This article will review the concept of heuristic analysis and share practical tips on how to do it properly.

How To Do A Heuristic Analysis

  1. Set a goal
  2. Know your users
  3. Run through at least twice
  4. Report usability issues properly
  5. Don’t do it alone
  6. Watch time
  7. Debrief evaluators
  8. Aggregate findings


What Is a Heuristic?

A heuristic is a general rule that describes common properties of usable interfaces. Usability experts use those rules to assess interfaces in human-computer interaction. Jakob Nielsen laid out 10 important usability heuristics, which are perhaps the most famous guidelines in the field of digital product design. Here are just a few notable examples from that list:

  • Visibility of system status: This heuristic recommends that the design continually communicate status updates to the user through various types of feedback.
  • Consistency and standards: To facilitate use, everything within the design, whether language or interaction, should be uniform. Further, designs should conform to broader conventions within a field.
  • Recognition rather than recall: Each element of a design should clearly indicate how the user should interact with it to avoid requiring the memorization of use patterns.

Ben Shneiderman’s Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design is another example of useful design heuristics that are applicable in most interactive systems. Whatever set of heuristics you adopt for your project will guide your teams thinking during the evaluation process.


What Is Heuristic Analysis?

Heuristic analysis is an expert-based analytical method that determines a product’s common usability issues. Usability experts rely on a list of predefined design principles (heuristics) and evaluate the design according to those rules. The goal of this process is to identify areas where the product does not comply with the principles.

During the process, evaluators identify usability issues and assign a rating to each of them. At the end of the evaluation, they create a report with a list of issues prioritized from the most to the least critical.

A team can perform a heuristic analysis at any stage of a product’s design process or after its release. For new products, you should do heuristic analysis during the prototyping phase. A prototypes fidelity doesnt play a huge role since its possible to do heuristic analysis with paper prototypes. That means you can start the analysis as soon as you have your first prototype.

For existing products, the best time to run heuristic analysis is before doing a redesign. Since you will be aware of key usability issues right from the start, the redesign will be more focused and effective. In both cases, heuristic analysis will help the team to identify areas that require polishing and ultimately save both time and money.


Can Heuristic Analysis Replace Usability Testing?

No, it cannot. In fact, there is a big difference between heuristic analysis and usability testing. Usability experts conduct heuristic analysis, and the process doesn’t involve real users. Remember that evaluators aren’t using the product to perform a real task. As a result, the issues that experts can uncover are not necessarily the same issues that real users struggle with. For example, experts might think that a particular issue, perhaps unclear error messages, has a major impact on user experience. In reality, though, users might struggle with a different issue such as significant information overload.

Usability testing, on the other hand, requires the active involvement of test participants who represent the target audience of a product. Test scenarios, meaning real tasks that users might want to complete in a product, are at the core of usability testing. As a result, usability testing helps to discover the mistakes participants make when interacting with a product.

Heuristic analysis and usability testing aren’t competitive methods though. They are allies that reinforce each other. You should conduct heuristic analysis first and then validate findings via usability testing. If you follow this approach, you have a much better chance to uncover all the usability problems in a product.


How to Conduct Heuristic Analysis

Heuristic analysis is a multistep process that typically follows this general format:

Set a Goal

Similar to any other usability evaluation method, it’s essential to figure out what you want to achieve with heuristic analysis and keep that goal at the forefront of your process. The goal will help you to accomplish the following:

  • Define the scope of analysis. You need to select a specific user flow or flows that you want to analyze. For example, suppose you want to improve the checkout experience on your e-commerce website. In that case, you need to focus on this particular part of the user experience and exclude other areas of your product.
  • Select heuristics that you want to use. Depending on your goal, you need to select between five and 10 heuristics that you will use during the analysis. For example, suppose you believe that poor discoverability is a major problem for your product. In that case, you can use the visibility of system status, the match between system and the real world and similar heuristics for your project.

Know Your Users

It’s much easier to do heuristic analysis when you have a clear understanding of your users’ goals and the context of their interactions with the product. This information will help you to see things from the perspective of your target audience. That’s why you should invest time in creating a user persona before conducting your heuristic analysis.

Run Through at Least Twice

Its hard to do a proper heuristic analysis if you dont understand how the product works. Thats why its crucial to invest time exploring the product and creating a big picture of the digital experience before conducting an analysis. You need to do at least two passes through the interface. The first pass will give you a general understanding of a product: What it is, what features it has and how the flow of the interaction is organized. The second pass allows you to focus on specific parts of a product, such as content or UI elements, while knowing how they fit into the larger whole.

Report Usability Issues Properly

Not only must you find usability issues, but it’s also equally important to report them properly. Vague descriptions such as “This control doesn’t look good” wont really be helpful when aggregating findings. A description that sounds like “This control doesn’t keep users informed about what is going on, which means that it violates the first heuristic — visibility of system status” will be much better.

Don’t Do It Alone

Even when you have all the required skills to run a heuristic analysis by yourself, it’s much better to invite other experts into this process. A group of evaluators (Jakob Nielsen recommends creating a group of three to five experts) will be able to uncover more usability problems in shorter periods of time. Plus, different people find different problems. Still, remember that each expert should evaluate the product separately. Only after all evaluations have been completed are the evaluators allowed to communicate. Doing so will help to ensure that the evaluation will be unbiased. 

Watch Time

A heuristic analysis session for an individual evaluator typically lasts one or two hours. The analysis for a complex product might take more time. In this case, you should split the analysis into a series of small sessions, with each of them focused on one particular part of the product.

Debrief Evaluators

After the last evaluation session, conduct a debriefing session to discuss possible redesigns to address any major usability problems. The participants in the debriefing should include the evaluators and representatives of the product team. This activity can be conducted in a format of a brainstorming session.

Aggregate Findings

The final step of a heuristic analysis is aggregating findings and creating a report that will be shared with all team members. During this step, it’s important to get rid of duplicates and prioritize unique issues by severity. The output is a list of usability problems in the product with references to those usability principles that were violated. The list of issues might have the following format:

  • Issue #
  • Issue description
  • Issue severity (1: critical, 2: high, 3: normal, 4: low)
  • Violated heuristic

Here is an example of an issue:

  • #1
  • Button doesn’t change color on click
  • 2
  • #1, Visibility of system status

You should also list each usability problem separately. For example, if there are a few different issues with a particular UI element, all of them should be listed independently with reference to the relevant principles. This approach minimizes the chance that some issues will remain in effect after a product team introduces a change to design.


Get Analytical!

Many products available on the market today suffer from poor usability. Heuristic analysis is a cost-effective method that allows you to identify key usability issues with your product. Evaluators can notice problems with individual elements early on and determine their impact on overall UX. You can also maximize the efficiency of heuristic analysis by pairing it with usability testing. In this case, you will identify issues that have a severe impact on end-user interactions.

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