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Heuristic Evaluation

January 12, 2013

A heuristic is a rule of thumb. Heuristics are things that are generally, but not necessarily always, true and experts often use them when they approach problems. For instance, a simple heuristic when you don’t know something is to ask a search engine.

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Heuristics are also useful when you are checking for usability problems in a user interface. For instance, an interface is hard to use if it is easy to make an error with it.

Heuristic evaluation is probably the most frequently used type of usability inspection method. It is where a group of expert evaluators identify usability problems in a user interface be running through a checklist of usability heuristics which are typically high level questions one can pose about a user interface. Typically, between two and five evaluators are used in a heuristic evaluation. The expert evaluators assess the interface using established usability guidelines and their professional experience to identify usability problems. 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. Heuristic evaluation was originally formulated by Nielsen and Mohlich. Nielsen later distilled his list of heuristics down to ten that have served him and others well in evaluating designs. These 10 heuristics are listed below.

10 Usability Heuristics (Recommended by Jakob Nielsen)
1. Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

2. Match between system and the real world
The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.

3. User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.

4. Consistency and standards
Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.

5. Error prevention
Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place.

6. Recognition rather than recall
Make objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.

8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.

9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

10. Help and documentation
Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

While Nielsen’s short and high level list of heuristics has proven popular there are in fact a number of lists of heuristics out there and different heuristics have been developed for different domains. One of the most important areas for user interface design is website design. The following figure shows a set of usability heuristics for website design.

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