How Heuristic Evaluations Fit Into Your UX Strategy

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
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Heuristic (hyu̇-ˈri-stik) adjective “involving or serving as an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving”

The business of UX and product development is, at its core, the business of solving problems. When we do our jobs well, we make people’s lives at least a little easier.

But we often don’t know what we don’t know.

That’s why when we work with clients we put a lot of time and energy into discovery and research. In fact, the first four of our 12 competencies of UX design relate in some way to discovery.

The only thing worse than not solving a problem is putting a lot of time and energy into solving the wrong problem.

A heuristic evaluation is one of our core tools for uncovering problems in a product. But there's often confusion about what a heuristic evaluation is and the value it can provide.

Here’s why you should fit heuristic evaluations into your UX strategy.

What is a heuristic evaluation?

When product leaders ask us for a heuristic evaluation they’re often expecting an audit. While there are similarities, a heuristic evaluation is more valuable than an audit.

A heuristic evaluation measures the usability of a product against established usability principles. Nielsen Norman Group famously has 10 of these principles or heuristics, and others have their own lists.

To do the evaluation, a single usability expert (or small group) walks through a set of features and screens to decide how well they measure up to these UX principles.

A well-executed heuristic evaluation offers an objective measure of the user experience. The measurable piece is the key. By assigning scores to each heuristic, the evaluation creates a baseline to measure future progress.

The end product is less a checklist audit of issues to address. It's more of a scorecard to show you where the most significant problems (and greatest areas of opportunity) exist.

Why should I do a heuristic evaluation?

The first thing to keep in mind is that a heuristic evaluation is not a replacement for user testing. Usability experts are humans and humans have biases. Almost any heuristic evaluation will highlight some issues that don't particularly bother users.

So why not skip ahead to user research? Because to get the full picture, you can't have one without the other.

There are a lot of factors that are critical to your product’s success. No single tool can give you a clear picture of all those factors. A heuristic evaluation is a great tool to see where your product falls on the Experience Success Ladder.

Most products we see are somewhere near the bottom of the ladder in the realm of Functional or Usable. To actually climb the ladder to Delightful and Meaningful, you need to know more. You need to understand how these issues impact your users. You need to hear straight from them what they care about. You need, in short, to see the product through their eyes.

A heuristic evaluation is a great first step to deciding where user research will be most useful. It helps you focus on the areas where you need more context to understand the problem at a deeper level. In turn, user research is a great way to test and confirm your heuristic evaluation. Users will help you understand which of the heuristics are impacting their specific experience the most.

At the end of the day, a heuristic evaluation benefits everybody from the design team to the product and business leaders. Taking the time to do an evaluation helps you focus your other research and product development efforts so you can save time later on.

A heuristic evaluation is best in the hands of a skilled expert.

It’s tempting to think that you can put a few team members on the task of generating a heuristic evaluation. The problem with internal evaluations is that your team is already too close to the product. Heuristic evaluations are best when they're as objective as possible. Opinion and past product development experiences can creep into an internal evaluation.

There is a skill to doing heuristic evaluations, and that skill is honed through regular practice. The more familiar the evaluator is with the core UX principles, and the more they’ve seen those principles play out in different products and contexts, the better they can separate relevant insights from noise.

It’s also important to identify the parts of the product or the types of users the evaluation needs to address. It’s not usually effective to do a heuristic evaluation of an entire product at once. Instead, it’s important to identify a subset of users, jobs-to-be-done, features, or interfaces to review. A narrower scope will lead to richer insights and more actionable findings.

We start by working with clients to identify their goals and define the scope of the evaluation. Then we establish the UX principles that will serve as the foundation of the heuristic evaluation. Not all UX principles are relevant to all products or features.

Our goal is to offer a transparent process and an objective result. This ensures that we’re intentional about what we’re evaluating and helps us keep a neutral perspective.

It can be hard to find the right combination of experience, unbiased perspective, and diligence required for a high-quality heuristic evaluation. But the rewards are well worth the effort.

A heuristic evaluation is just the beginning.

There is no perfect discovery or research technique that can get you all the answers you need. It takes a combination of approaches to build a 360-degree view of the problems you’re trying to solve.

Heuristic evaluations are part of a larger toolkit we use to help clients get a deeper understanding of their users and their product. It sets a baseline for understanding the current experience so you can see where to start and measure your progress over time.

As outside consultants and advisors, it’s also a great way to get familiar with a client’s product. We can get into the weeds while providing valuable feedback and analysis at the same time. It makes design sprints a lot easier when the team understands at a deeper level what users are trying to achieve.

Get your heuristic evaluation today.

Many product owners want somebody to do a quick audit and tell them the easiest fixes and quickest wins. A heuristic evaluation offers something much deeper. It's a way to define and think about your deeper core problems so you can put your energy into what matters most.

Looking for help defining your problems? Drop us a line and let’s talk about how we can help.