Heuristic Evaluation: Your Complete Guide
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Heuristics or heuristic evaluation is one of those terms that have become associated to conversion rate optimization projects. Whether you were a CRO expert or new to this field, certainly you have spotted the high recognition heuristic evaluation receives among usability testing methods.
Heuristic evaluations are commonly used by most conversion experts. However, keep in mind that you cannot learn the heuristics by heart and just loosely apply them. You need knowledge and resources to conduct an evaluation adequately. Besides, not all heuristics are applicable to every website.
This guide provides you a full explanation about the 10 heuristics and how they function within a website. Along with the 10 heuristics, we will also explain the elements of the Conversion Framework, our method for conducting the heuristic evaluation of our clients’ websites.
To use this technique properly, this article provides answers to many frequently asked questions, as: what does heuristic evaluation really mean? What are the 10 heuristics? What could I possible gain from conducting it? When should I use it? And how?
What Is a Heuristic Evaluation?
The word heuristic refers to a rule of thumb adopted based on an experience or common knowledge. Ultimately, an heuristic evaluation is based on a set of rules that represents the best practices a website should include.
As a usability method, heuristic evaluation detects usability problems within a website and helps in creating educated changes to site improvement. It is a valuable technique in the sense that it gives a quick feedback and it is extremely cost effective.
About 20 years ago, when Jakob Nielsen first introduced this method, conducting a heuristic evaluation was mainly a form of walking throughout a website looking for instances that violated the heuristics he introduced, followed by a critical stage where a team of experts got together and decided on what were the important changes to go forward with from there.
This practice has changed since then, and now each organization shapes this technique in accordance with its purposes and needs.
But before diving into more details, let’s have a look at what these heuristics really entail.
Getting to Know the 10 Heuristics and the Elements of the Conversion Framework
The 10 heuristics are designed to uncover most of the problems within a website. However, they are not applicable to every website and you can always add or delete any that are not appropriate for you.
At Invesp, we utilize the Conversion Framework to guide our heuristic evaluations. Much like the 10 heuristics of Jacob Neilson, the Conversion Framework is designed to keep all the key aspects that will help uncover website problems. Our framework is made up of seven main elements, but each element is broken down into 250 sub elements that we evaluate during a heuristic.
Let’s go over the concepts of the 10 heuristics and the elements of the Conversion Framework:
1. Consistency/Continuity: this principle states that users should not have to wonder whether the different words or situations mean the same thing. To avoid users’ confusion, always make sure that there is convention and continuity within your website.
A good example of lack of consistency/continuity would be the following web pages:
In this website, the navigation layout and wording change as the user clicks into a new page, which makes it confusing and frustrating.
The wording switches from “Shop” to “Shop/Upgrade,” from “Comcast business” to “Business.” Users will question whether these categories are the same.
Image source: interaction-design
This first heuristic falls under the Conversion Framework element of Trust. To deliver a better user experience, and persuade visitors, you need to provide them with the trust and confidence to proceed. Lack of continuity inhibits trust, which oftentimes prompts visitors to abandon the site. Lack of continuity can occur from an off-site ad to the landing page, or from page to page within the same site as displayed in the example above.
2. The visibility of the interface status: according to this guideline, the website should communicate clearly with the users and keep informing them all the time about what is going on within reasonable time and appropriate feedbacks.
A simple example of interface status indicator is the spinning dial when a page is loading.
The second element of our Conversion Framework is FUDs, which translates into fears, uncertainties, and doubts. A lack of communication or understanding to what is going on the site or on the page can cause FUDs and prompt visitors to abandon the site. Clear communication is critical to help visitors proceed.
At the Conversion Framework, visibility of interface status falls into the sub-element called “progress indication.” Visitors need to know what their progress is, or the progress on something loading. Otherwise they will assume it is broke and leave.
3. Error Prevention: this principle states that a great design prevents users from making errors, and, if an error occurs, the website should be able to identify it and help the user recover easily.
An example for error prevention is helping users reset their password in case they forget it.
Again, this heuristic would fall under FUDs. Not providing visitors with sufficient error prevention or alternate paths can cause fears, uncertainties, and doubts in the visitor. This recently happened to me after downloading the SMX app. It offered me a screen to login, although I did not have login information and wanted to create an account. There was no clear path or information to help me find the create account section on the app.4. Recognition or recall: this principle states the importance of minimizing user’s memory load, by making all the website’s components more visible and memorable.
It is also fundamental to make instructions for using a website visible and/or easily retrievable.
Look at this example, for instance:
Image source: webdesign
In this example, without the description “reply,” the user would spend a lot of time trying to decipher what the icon arrow means, especially because an arrow typically means “go back” or “previous.” The designer understood this issue, so to make it easier and recognizable for the user, and avoid any sort of confusion, they added a description next to the arrow.
Most of the heuristics fall under FUDs, which is why we spend quite a bit of time on just this element. Although other elements are not to be ignored, when it comes to heuristics, you are evaluating the general flow throughout the site to ensure nothing is breaking or causing major obstruction. This recognition heuristic, as I mentioned, falls under FUDs and in particular under “instructional guidance.” Visitors don’t always know what certain symbols mean, so you can mitigate this problem by providing the meaning through either having the wording or a small asterisk or question mark they can click on for more information.
5. Aesthetics and minimalist design: this principle states that the website should not contain extra or irrelevant information, because it diminishes the relative visibility of the relevant units.
In the above example, the design looks cluttered and boring, coupled with large irrelevant information that distracts the users’ intention and makes them miss why they are on this website in the first place.
On the flip side, the updated version seems simple and more focused. Users do not need to spend mental effort scrutinizing through the content, instead they can focus on the main elements of the page easily.
In the updated version of the website, the designer has made smarter choices through packaging the previous information and making it easier to consume and understand by users.
The aesthetics aspects have a crucial role in making your website either more engaging or less appealing to your users.
In our Conversion Framework, this is referred to as clutter, again under FUDs. Balancing whitespace and ensuring that your overall design aesthetic is not too cluttered is a key component that we consider when we conduct a heuristic evaluation. Sometimes clutter can be present within a specific area of the page, or at an element level. There are two considerations when we look at clutter:
- Is the information or element that is cluttering relevant?
- If it is not relevant, we need to remove it and place it in the more appropriate location
- If it is relevant, we need to reduce the size and space it takes up for
- Easier access to the information
- More whitespace and cleaner design
- Is this clutter actually causing lack of trust and confidence with the site visitor?
- Review analytics to assess.
- Consider creating events to see if visitors are “clicking enough” on the necessary areas you deem cluttered.
- Review heatmap data.
6. Match between the website and the real world: this principle emphasizes the necessity of having a website that speaks the users’ language using words and concepts that are familiar to them.
To understand this principle better, here is an example:
The requested credit card details match the real credit card details, which makes it easier for the user to fill the blanks without confusion.
In the Conversion Framework we consider this an element that falls under Trust and Confidence. Ultimately, for site visitors, if they don’t understand the technical specifications and information about your product or service, they will not have confidence to move forward with your company. Therefore, technical lingo and jargon needs to be dumbed down to match visitor expectations, needs, and level of technical knowledge.
7. Control and the freedom of users: this principal emphasizes users’ freedom to navigate and undo accidental errors by providing them with an “emergency exit” to recover fast and easy from mistakes, as well as clear paths to help them get back to where they want to be.
Image Source: blog.prototypr
Whether its breadcrumbs, or a simple “Back” CTA, visitors need a way to get back where they started or sometimes the step before. It seems like a simple enough action to provide to visitors, but time and time again we find that this particular Conversion Framework element (within FUDs) is ignored.
A simple rule to follow for any action on your site:
Don’t have your visitors always guessing what to do.
A recent client offered some discounts on their site through a slider that appeared at the bottom of the page. However, exiting out of the slider was very difficult and unclear, which made what could have been a great experience into a nightmare for site visitors.
8. Flexibility and efficiency of use: this principle states that the website should incorporate accelerators which are unseen for the average users, but at the same time allows the experts to navigate faster with more frequent actions.
Simply, both average users and experts should be able to use your interface in a satisfying experience.
Consider, for example, how experts and average users use the keyboard of a computer. Experts always prefer to use the keyboard accelerator shortcuts while average users use the mouse and do almost everything manually.
Image source: gcflearnfree
This particular heuristic falls under engagement in our Conversion Framework.
Within engagement, we state that is important to keep visitors on the site longer, because research has proven that longer time = more likely to convert.
One aspect that we focus on at Invesp is persona creation. By understanding the site visitor, you will decipher the level of technical savvy each persona has. You may have some visitors who aren’t very savvy, while others are quite skilled. Each of those personas needs to be considered when it comes to engagement. If your site offers traditional navigation, that may appeal to the novice visitor, but certainly not to skilled visitors. If you offer a widget for quick search, you change the game and appeal to the more tech-savvy visitor. But the key to providing this varying paths or elements on your site is knowing your visitors to not only meet but exceed their expectations.
9. Help users recognize, diagnose and recover from errors: this principle states that error messages should be expressed in a plain and a direct language, to indicate the problems precisely.
Always make sure that users understand what went wrong and what can be done to fix it.
Image source: blog.prototypr
Going back to FUDs once again, error prevention and error instructional guidance are quite important. This means that the way errors are highlighted and visitors are directed to correct them becomes critical. There’s an expression in CRO that says: “Don’t make me think!” And that is exactly what your visitors expect from your site.
For example, when filling a form, and clicking to continue, users will have a frustrating experience if, for some reason they can’t proceed, with no clear indication as to why they can’t continue. The visitor should be informed either by being scrolled up to the error, or by receiving a notice next to the continue button.
10. Help and Documentation: even if the website does not need a help section or documentation to be fully understood, always make sure to provide it.
Below is an example of Skyscanner help page, where they provide a video explaining all the questions related to users’ booking.
There is also a search field coupled with the frequently asked questions (FAQs) and queries on the same page.
Within the Conversion Framework there is an overall emphasis on ways to counter FUDs and increase trust and confidence. FUDs is often caused by lack of information or clearly defined paths. This heuristic is about just that.
But information needs to be placed in the right place for the visitor to identify it as well. There Also, you can provide instructions in different ways: wizards, instructional graphics, videos, gifs, FAQs, as well as providing a simple “?” or “What’s this?” links that visitors can click on to find more information.
The Steps of Heuristic Evaluation
Like any other usability testing, when conducting heuristic evaluations, you need to begin with a clear goal in mind, even if what you will discover is ultimately unexpected. With your goal in mind, you can follow two-step or three-step methodologies to conduct your website evaluation.
Based on the method explained in the nngroup article, heuristic evaluation is basically conducted through two main stages:
- 1. Inspection vs the 10 Heuristics: this phase revolves around each expert inspecting the website independently, going through the different elements of the website and comparing them against a list of recognized usability principles, the 10 heuristics. At the inspection stage, the heuristics are set into three categories based on their function: understanding, action, feedback.
- 2. Problem aggregation: During this stage, the experts aggregate all the findings and start comparing and putting all the information into reports, or experts can verbalize their thoughts into comments to an observer as they go through the website.
- To help us identify what parts of the customer experience are most broken on your website.
- To remove the guesswork; where each problem we uncover during a heuristic evaluation is validated by analytics.
When it comes to the number of the experts assigned throughout the whole evaluation, we believe it should not exceed five, because involving many experts won’t help and it will generate additional work especially during the sort out phase.
Our methodology has three main phases:
- 1. Playbook activities: as a preliminary stage, the experts independently perform some activities laid out in our playbook, such as sign up for a newsletter, place an order, unsubscribe, return a product. While performing these activities, the experts try their best to mirror the users’ expectations and consider their perspectives. During each activity, the experts record what problems or difficulties they face or areas they believe need improvement. Some of the issues may be bugs on a website, while others may be research opportunities for us to investigate further.
- 2. Discussion: together, the group of experts go through the point of entry of the site until an order confirmation page or a submission of a form. By using the Conversion Framework, the experts evaluate whether there are any issues for immediate fixes or further research and consideration by the team.
- 3. Validation: to validate the information gathered, this phase contains qualitative research and assessment of website analytics to see if these issues are apparent elsewhere. The validation strengthens the hypothesis to solve the uncovered problems. While the heuristic evaluation in itself does not provide solutions or a systematic way to resolve the usability problems identified, the detailed explanations of experts, along with analytics analysis, represent a great input to derive and generate suitable fixes.
When to Use Heuristic Evaluation
You can use heuristic evaluation at the different stages of your design process:
- Early stages of your design: there is no need to wait till your website is built. You can perform a heuristic evaluation early on the design process to identify possible problems and find solutions for a better user experience.
- Before user testing: if you intend to conduct a user testing, launching a heuristic evaluation before the user testing will help you focus more on the valuable and important elements to test. This will save you from wasting your resources in identifying minor issues and the issues that can be picked up automatically without effort.
- Along with other tests: you can also use this methodology along with other tests for more details and in-depth analysis of your website.
- Before redesigning: conducting a heuristic evaluation before redesigning will help you identify the parts you want to keep in your design and the parts that are more problematic and need redesigning. This can be done thanks to the rich qualitative feedback that peer critique provides.
- When you need to pinpoint the problems within your website: heuristic evaluation can help you articulate the website problems that you already suspect having, and help you make educated changes.
- Before releasing software: heuristic evaluation can also help you on a final check to your design before releasing it to a wider range of users.
What Could You Possibly Gain from Conducting a Heuristic Evaluation?
According to this study, the benefits of heuristic evaluation are 62 times greater than the costs.
Image Source: nngroup
When being compared to other methods, in the case of a user testing for instance, heuristic evaluation is more accurate and detailed, but how?
For user testing, there is usually an observer who takes on their shoulders the responsibility of explaining the user’s actions and inferring the hidden reasons behind these actions, which leaves room for interpretation and guesswork that can be misleading.
Heuristic evaluation is also a great way to obtain meaningful results in a very short time.
Over to You
Being extremely powerful and cost effective, heuristic evaluation doesn’t require you to set a budget aside to be conducted, you can leverage the existing resources in your company without the need to worry about all the “how” questions often asked in case of other usability tests.
Heuristic evaluation is great, easy, and cheap to conduct in comparison to other usability methodologies.
Keep in mind that website inspection sits at the core of heuristic evaluation, where each expert gives their feedback about the website independently to avoid any sort of bias evaluation.
You can ultimately use heuristic evaluation throughout the whole design process, and there is no need to wait till your website is built, as you can perform the evaluation at the website early stages.
You can also use this evaluation as a guideline for redesigning your website to make a new version that provides a better user experience.
Invesp’s own heuristic evaluation provides accurate results and enhancement, especially at the level of conversions as we combine our heuristic evaluations to our conversion framework .
Note that each CRO company has its own methodology, but all heuristics are rooted in the same principals which we share with any other usability or CRO group.
- Is the information or element that is cluttering relevant?
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