A heuristic analysis is a usability evaluation method that, unlikely usability tests, does not involve real users directly. Instead, it is based on a set of guidelines or good practices called heuristics.
During a heuristic analysis, the examiner, who is typically a user experience and usability expert, reviews the interface and determines whether or not it complies with established heuristic principles.
What heuristics to use?
When it comes to choosing which heuristics to use, many UX professionals opt to base their evaluations on the 10 heuristic principles developed by Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich. These principles are widely recognized and continue to be valid today since they were the first to be published.
For a comprehensive description of the Nielsen and Molich heuristics, along with examples, you can refer to our article, “The Nielsen heuristic principles explained with examples”
However, many UXers prefer to use custom listings with additional guidelines that allow them to assess more specific aspects of the interface.
Where do heuristics come from?
It’s important to note that heuristic principles should never be based solely on the personal opinion of the expert. All heuristics must be based on the observation of real users and describe the problems they face with the interfaces.
The Nielsen and Molich heuristics were developed from an extensive number of tests carried out with thousands of users over the years and not from the intuition of their two authors.
How to analyze data from a heuristic review?
When it comes to analyzing data from a heuristic review, some examiners use heuristics as a simple checklist applied to all the elements of an interface. They indicate whether or not each element complies with the heuristics and assign a percentage that indicates to what extent the interface meets the heuristics.
However, this method of working with heuristics provides limited information about interface problems and how to solve them.
Therefore, it’s ideal to include an analysis of each problem detected that focuses on understanding the reasons for the problem and, ideally, suggesting how to fix them.
It’s also crucial to assign a priority or importance to the problems detected, in order to guide teams when creating an improvement plan.
Typically, issues are prioritized based on three parameters:
Frequency: How many users could be affected by the problem? All or just a few?
Impact: What potential consequence would the problem have on the user experience? To cause a few doubts is not the same as preventing a purchase.
Persistence: Is it a problem that would appear every time the user will use the interface or just a few times?
Limitations and strengths of heuristic review.
Heuristic review is almost always a cheaper and faster technique than a user test since it requires very minimal preparation and does not involve additional expenses such as the recruitment of participants.
However, it is not as accurate as a test carried out with real users. Although it allows us to find a large number of problems, there will always be a few more that we can detect only if we involve real users.
The reason for this is simple: heuristics are approximations based on the behavior of very large groups of people. They cannot account for the particular mental model of each individual. Only by talking to real users are able to dig into the exact reasons for the problems they experience.
In addition, they are general rules that, while they can be customized for interfaces of the same type (e.g., e-commerce, travel websites, music apps), are almost never tailor-made for a specific interface.
Lastly, even if heuristic reviews are assigned to expert professionals, they always depend on the human factor and on the subjective assessment of the examiner. What is a problem for one examiner might not be considered a problem by another.