Exploring heuristic reviews: Enhancing digital experiences

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 their artifacts look like, and how to conduct them effectively.

What are heuristic reviews?

User research Heuristics reviews - Usability heuristics

The International Design Federation’s icons for usability heuristics are helpful visuals to connect the theories to practice. 

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. . 

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.

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

During 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. 

Why should we care about heuristic reviews?

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

Step-by-step guide to conducting a heuristic review

Now, let's break down how to do a heuristic review effectively.

1. Choose relevant usability heuristics

Start by getting acquainted with established usability heuristics like Nielsen's 10 principles. These will be your guidelines for 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 experience. Make sure you have defined where the experience will start and end. For example, if you are 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 part 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 on, 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 the violations based on their severity and potential impact. Use a numeric and 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:

User research Heuristics reviews

On top shows a heuristic review color-coded score card. The numbers 1–4 correspond to the severity of the “Match between system status and the real world” violation, according to Nielsen’s principles. On the bottom, you can see examples of the severity scores along with the specific finding. 

User research Heuristics reviews

On top is the same heuristic review color-coded score card for a separate heuristic, “Help & documentation”. The numbers 1–4 repeat the first example's severity violation scoring. On the bottom, you can see examples of the Help & Documentation severity scores along with the corresponding findings. 

User research Heuristics reviews

Spreadsheets are another way to catalog severity ratings and their findings. 

PRO TIP: Here are some sample research objectives for a heuristic study

  • Conduct expert heuristic evaluation on X’s homepage 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 to [Client] for future website development.  

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.

PRO TIP: 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.A comparison of the heuristic violation scores and findings across segments and platforms. 

Here are some comparison examples:  

User research Heuristics reviews - Quantity of findings on desktop
User research Heuristics reviews - Breakdown of heuristics on desktop
User research Heuristics reviews - Cumulative scores

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 aspects 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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