Feedback helps us grow. We are (or should be) constantly seeking constructive feedback from others — it's the only way to get better.

This is true when developing a new product or feature — we ask customers for their input. However, customers will often focus on details that aren't critical features in the development phase, and honoring their input could derail — or even confuse — your production team. Early on it's more beneficial for your product development team to gather feedback on fundamental functions.

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Obtaining customer feedback is highly valuable for designing a product that will delight your audience, but you should also have experts test the product for fundamental flaws or areas of improvement. These tests provide developers with valuable criticism from credible experts who understand the industry as well as customer needs.

One of these tests is a heuristic evaluation, which assesses the user interface of a product.In this post, we'll break down what a Heuristic evaluation is, its benefits for product development, and how you can run one with your team.

Heuristic evaluations provide product development teams with an expert assessment of their website or app's usability. After the inspection, evaluators will give developers and designers a list of potential issues to address. Product management can then instruct their teams to tweak the interface according to those recommendations. If performed correctly, this process can find over 80% of the usability issues that exist on your website or app.

Heuristic Evaluation vs. Usability Testing

While both tests can point out flaws with usability, heuristic evaluations differ significantly from usability testing in how the tests are conducted and the issues they identify. Heuristic evaluations are done with product development or industry professionals who determine flaws based on expert opinion and preset guidelines. The evaluators inspect the interface on their own terms, then provide the development team with a list of suggestions.

Usability tests, however, observe target consumers while they're using the website or app. These tests give the user a specific task to perform, then observe whether or not they can complete the action and how long it took to do so. The participants may be asked to provide some feedback to the developers, but it will be in response to any questions the development team has for the user.

When to Use a Heuristic Evaluation

A heuristic evaluation can be used at any point in the development process, but it's most effective when conducted early on in the website or app's design stages. If possible, it should even be performed after each design sprint. This will give your team useful feedback about your design before users are exposed to it during user testing.

Heuristic evaluations also tend to be less expensive to conduct when the interface is in the early stages of development. The more advanced your interface becomes, the more expensive it will cost to redesign it. By running your heuristic evaluation early and often, you can ensure optimal usability and avoid costly redesigns.

The Benefits of Conducting a Heuristic Evaluation

There are many usability tests that your company can conduct, but heuristic evaluations provide unique insights that can play a major role in the success of your website or app. Additionally, they can be much more cost-effective and efficient compared to other methods of testing. While this should be enough to sway most product teams, if you're still skeptical about heuristic evaluations below are three core benefits to consider.

1. Efficiency

Heuristic evaluations, in practice, are a relatively simple process to conduct. Depending on the product's complexity, they can be completed in as little time as a couple of days. The experts analyzing the interface often work independently, allowing developers to focus on other projects while the evaluators work. Once the heuristic evaluation is complete, designers can then address the inconsistencies and errors found in testing and present an improved version for evaluators to re-test. This creates an efficient feedback loop that continues throughout the development process.

2. Organization

The feedback provided by evaluators in a heuristic evaluation can significantly influence how a product development team prioritizes sprints and projects. Evaluators provide product management with a list of flaws that are organized by their severity. Product owners can then use this information to create and organize their product backlogs. By utilizing this system for prioritization, product teams are more likely to meet their deadlines because they're more organized.

3. Versatility

Heuristic evaluations aren't just a one-and-done analysis. Their findings can be used alongside other usability tests to uncover unique insights about a website or app. For example, after you address the feedback from a heuristic evaluation you can check out your product usage reports to measure the success of your changes. If you notice areas with lower usage in your reports, you can then address those aspects for the evaluators to consider. Heuristic evaluations then provide product developers with qualitative feedback that helps explains the trends appearing in product usage reports.

How to Conduct a Heuristic Evaluation

1.  Determine an interface to use. 

The first step in conducting a heuristic evaluation is determining the interface that you're going to test. The beauty of a heuristic evaluation is that the interface can be as simple or as complex as you would like —it could be a prototype, a model, or even just a drawing. The only requirement is that the interface replicates the layout and features that you plan on using for the live version. Remember that over time you can retest the interface as your website or app becomes further developed.

2. Select the evaluators.

To perform a traditional heuristic evaluation, you'll need to use multiple evaluators to assess your interface. A single person can't spot all of your usability issues, even if they're highly experienced in design. Using three to five evaluators should give you a comprehensive assessment of all aspects of your design.

Additionally, while it's fine to use internal employees for this step, be sure to include evaluators with different professional backgrounds and relation to the product. Sometimes the most difficult problems to spot are found by people who have an outside perspective from the development process. These evaluators understand specific customer needs and can provide solutions that may have been overlooked by the development team.

3. Inspect the interface. 

Once the evaluators are chosen, the next step is to inspect the interface. Evaluators must perform their inspection individually so that each one gathers their own unique feedback for the developers. In some cases, evaluators can be accompanied by an observer who is present to assist the evaluator during the process. They observer can answer questions about the design and be a reference for the evaluator if he or she gets confused.

During the inspection, evaluators will compare the interface to a set of design principles. These principles are agreed upon prior to the assessment and are used as a baseline to determine good vs. bad design. The most commonly used set of principles is Jakob Nielsen's 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design which break down the fundamental standards for creating an effective design. Evaluators will compare the interface to these guidelines, then record their results for further analysis and feedback.

4. Debrief the evaluators. 

After all of the evaluators have completed their inspection, it's common for them to share their observations with one another. This helps them discover intentions about the design that may not have been clear during testing. Evaluators then agree on common themes and criticisms to present to the developers in order of importance.

Once the evaluators have spoken with each other, product management will have a brainstorming session with them to gather and analyze feedback. Evaluators will address specific problems in the design and explain why each flaw doesn't hold up to the usability standard. Evaluators can even make suggestions to product developers on how they can enhance their design. If needed, product managers can also ask the evaluators specific questions about the interface and how certain details can be improved going forward.

Companies that are looking to optimize the usability of its product or service should always consider conducting a heuristic evaluation with their development team. Heuristic evaluations help developers create a product or service that's user-friendly and effective for their target audience.

To learn more about creating effective designs, read about the system usability scale.

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Originally published Mar 11, 2019 8:00:00 AM, updated March 11 2019

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User Testing