In UX, there's a powerful user research technique that often goes unnoticed but can greatly impact the quality of our physical products and digital interfaces: heuristic reviews. 

Let's dive into what heuristic reviews are, how they can be a game-changer, what they look like, and how to conduct them effectively.

User research heuristic reviews

What are heuristic reviews?

Heuristic reviews are independent, methodical evaluations that help us understand how usable and user-friendly our designs are. You can think of them as a detective's magnifying glass for physical products and digital interfaces.  

They do more than just identify issues; they give us insights into how people experience our designs and whether they're user-friendly and efficient. They help us spot areas we can improve, leading to greater satisfaction and overall effectiveness. 

Heuristic reviews are conducted by industry experts on the product or experience you're measuring, and don’t involve participants. The experts examine experiences against predefined usability principles or "heuristics," highlighting potential design issues.

Reviews are usually performed in the early design phase, but can be conducted throughout the development lifecycle, even after launch. 

In a recent Ask Like A Pro cohort, two keen researchers put heuristic reviews to the test on a live healthcare website. One focused on the mobile version; the other on the desktop version. Both researchers recruited separate professional heuristics evaluators to score the top ten tasks healthcare consumers came to the site to achieve. The results revealed substantial learnings that showcased the versatility of heuristic reviews in diagnosing usability problems across different devices. And both studies provided actionable, prioritized recommendations to address them. 

User research heuristic reviews

Step-by-step guide to conducting a heuristic review

Now that we understand what heuristic reviews are and why they're effective, let's break down how to do a review effectively.

Before you get started, you'll need to set some objectives for your study. Here are some sample research objectives for a heuristic study:

  • Conduct expert heuristic evaluations of X’s home page to inform how to improve the UX experience on desktop and mobile.

  • Identify specific usability issues patients and prospects may encounter based on five of Jakob Nielsen’s Usability Heuristics for User Interaction Design, and capture severity ratings of heuristic violations.

  • Determine which usability issues are most important to address, and provide actionable feedback for future website development.  

1. Choose relevant usability heuristics

Start by getting acquainted with established usability heuristics, like Nielsen's 10 principles. These will be the guidelines for your review. Remember, not all heuristics apply to every project, so select the ones that fit best.

2. Systematically examine the user interface

Take a methodical approach to reviewing the user experience. Make sure you've defined where the experience will start and end. For example, if you're evaluating an onboarding flow, be specific about where this flow begins and ends. I like to focus on the top five or ten tasks people want their product or experience to accomplish. Evaluate each of these tasks against the chosen heuristics, examining how well they succeed.

3. Spot issues and suggest improvements

As you navigate the physical product or digital design, keep an eye out for issues that violate the heuristics. Jot them down. Later, you’ll review the results holistically and offer specific feedback on how to improve each substantial violation.

4. Prioritize and collaborate on fixes

Not all issues are equally important. Prioritize violations based on their severity and potential impact. Use a numeric or color-coded system to record scores that measure their impact. Then, work with your team to brainstorm and implement the improvements that matter most.

Here are some scoring examples:

  1. Cosmetic problem only: Doesn't need to be fixed unless extra time is available on the project

  2. Minor usability problem: Fixing this should be given low priority

  3. Major usability problem: Important to fix, so should be given high priority

  4. Usability catastrophe: Imperative to fix this before the product can be released

Uncovering deeper design issues

Beyond surface-level problems, heuristic reviews also help uncover deeper design issues like cognitive biases or inconsistencies. These factors can really influence user satisfaction, making heuristic reviews essential for identifying and solving them.

When reporting on your heuristic findings, include the following:

  1. Screenshots and/or video reels of the violations in context. This will help the people consuming the information make a direct connection between the literal violation and how and where the issue surfaces.

  2. A comparison of the scores and findings of heuristic violations to each other.

  3. A comparison of the heuristic violation scores and findings across segments and platforms. 

Below are some comparison examples.  

User research heuristic reviews
User research heuristic reviews
User research heuristic reviews

Making your designs user-centric

If you're new to heuristic reviews or haven't done one in a while, give it a shot. It might sound complex, but the impact it can have on your designs is worth it. Stakeholders who prefer quantitative (over qualitative) data are often more likely to grasp these metrics

Heuristic reviews guide us toward creating designs that truly resonate with the people we design for. They can also be used when triangulating data as an additional source to strengthen your research questions, learnings, and insights.  

In sum, heuristic reviews are a practical, repeatable, technique to score, measure, and prioritize which design elements to improve, and why. They might not be flashy, but they sure can make an enormous difference in optimizing designs that captivate users with seamless interactions.

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This article was authored by Michele Ronsen, Founder and CEO of Curiosity Tank. Michele is a user research executive, coach and educator. She teaches design and user research to people around the world. Her corporate trainings and workshops are inspired by working with Fortune 500s and start-ups for more than twenty years. Fuel Your Curiosity is her award winning, free, user-research newsletter. In 2020, LinkedIn honored Michele with a TopVoices award in the Technology category. She is the first and only researcher to receive this award.

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