I like usability heuristics. Instead of us all solving the same problems over and over again, we can refer to tested and proven heuristics to inform user interface designs.

Heuristics can improve the efficiency of your design team in two important ways;

Settle Disagreements

In design reviews or day to day collaboration, designers will disagree about a specific design choice or direction. For example: what formats a date entry field should allow? What if I tell you the answer is already known.

Jakob Nielsen’s famous UI design heuristic includes a heuristic about error prevention. It states that you should strive to prevent errors rather than trying to design good error messages. The implication is that instead of asking the user to enter a date, let them select a date form a calendar.

This example is a bit a contrived, but the idea applies in many scenarios. If you find that your team gets stuck in arguments about designs, try and define a set of agreed-upon heuristics that you and your team will follow. Then whenever you get stuck in a disagreement, try and use the heuristics to settle the differences.

More efficient usability tests

I often hear UX designers complain about the lack of user testing as part of their design process. And I agree, there is no substitute for getting your product in front of a user and seeing first hand the stumbling blocks and pain points of your designs. But if we struggle to find resources and time to perform usability testing, then we should aim to use the time with users most effectively.

In a usability test with a user, we want the user to identify the problems that we are unaware of and that we are incapable of identifying on our own. However, sometimes, a user interface has a usability issue that is obvious and has an obvious solution. Then instead of the user identifying invisible problems, they get stuck on the obvious ones.

Therefore, before we go into a usability study, we should make sure that the design is without obvious usability flaws. And the best way to identify such issues is with an expert review using usability heuristics.

An expert review is a purposeful evaluation of a user interface using a set of heuristics as the evaluation criteria. The idea is to identify areas where the design is in breach of the heuristics, which indicates possible usability issues.

To understand when and how to use expert reviews, consider the following differences between the two:

  • Expert reviews require less planning and preparation
  • Expert reviews cannot identify all usability issues
  • Usability tests can identify more issues than expert reviews can
  • Usability tests results are more convincing than expert reviews

There is no substitute for usability testing with real users. We are not our users and we will never be able to design a perfect user interface the first time. But usability testing is hard and usually happens less frequently than we would like. Therefore, we should include purposeful expert reviews in our design process to identify obvious usability issues. Then our usability reviews can identify problems that we were unaware of an unable to find ourselves.