One of the most important attributes of a well-designed digital product (if not the most important!) it’s its usability. Unarguably, if a digital product is difficult to use, its users will leave and find/use another product that can satisfy their needs.

The importance of a well crafted usability in the end product makes it essential to test during its creation. Thus, one of the most important phases in the UX design process being usability testing with users.

However, before showing a prototype to a user and run a usability test with them, we can run our own "in-house" usability inspections. One of the most used usability inspections techniques is a Heuristic Evaluation. Usually performed by a small team of evaluators, a Heuristic Evaluation reviews a digital product's interface and compares it against a set of pre-defined principles or guidelines: heuristics.

There are several sets of heuristics that are commonly used, however, the most famous and currently used set of heuristics is the Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for Interface Design (released by Jakob Nielsen in 1994).

The following guidelines, as stated by Nielsen, are a rule of thumb that can be used to identify common usability problems in user interface designs:

UX Collective - 10 Usability Heuristics Every Designer Should Know

1. Visibility of system status
Designs should keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate, timely feedback.

2. Match between System and the Real World
The design should speak the user’s language. Use of words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than internal jargon.

3. User Control and Freedom
Users should not have to wonder wether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.

4. Consistency and Standards
Users should not have to wonder wether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.

5. Error Prevention
Good error messages are important, but the best designs prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

6. Recognition Rather than Recall
Minimise the user’s memory load by making elements, actions, and options visible. Avoid making users remember information.

7. Flexibility and Efficiency of Use
Shortcuts - hidden from novice users - may speed up the interaction for the expert user.

8. Aesthetic and Minimalist Design
Interfaces should not contain information which is irrelevant. Every extra unit of information in an interface competes with the relevant units of information.

9. Recognise, Diagnose and recover from Errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no error codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

10. Help and Documentation
It’s best if the design doesn’t need any additional explanation. However, it may be necessary to provide documentation to help users understand how to complete their tasks.

New problems arise

I have been using Nielsen's usability heuristics as standard guidelines without giving it that many second thoughts. That, however, changed after joining a digital UX meet up from UX Joburg group earlier this year.

In this meetup, Børge Kristensen, from Copenux, presented us with is work on a new set of Usability Heuristics that, according to his research, better reflect the problems that users face in the modern web.

After analysing  299 usability problems found through testing modern websites, he realised that most of them didn't completely fit any of the guidelines suggested by Nielsen and most where open to interpretation by the evaluators to where to fit them.

A majority fo the problems found were regarding navigation, content and visual design, which can be hard to categorise using old heuristics.

And why is that? Well, if we take in consideration Nielsen's heuristics, one of the reasons could be that due to its base analysis on 90's computer software problems, it falls short when it comes to analyse nowadays websites and apps - not mentioning the range of different mediums to which we currently design those interfaces for, from smartphones to wearables.

So, how can we better identify and categorise these new problems in design interface?

A new set of heuristics

Based on their work, Børge and Marie’s work suggest the following categorisation of 9 heuristics:

Copenux - Web Usability Heuristics

Simple as possible, not overwhelming (e.g. limit of choices) and with no unnecessary steps that are irrelevant to the task.

Uniform, recognisable presentation and interaction, that matches user’s expectations through internal and external consistencies.

Elements should be visible, not hidden, designed and placed so they are easy to spot. Promote recognition instead of recalling.

Chucking, categorisation and grouping of elements according to user’s needs and mental models in a logical order.

Comprehensible, precise and unambiguous communication. Evident differentiation between items within a clear context. Self-explanatory visual.

The user, not the system, is in control. Appropriate pace for different users. Allow actions to be reverted.

The design is self-evident and interactive elements signal how they should be used.

Reasonable interpretation of users’ inputs (with the system interpreting what users are trying to achieve) and clicks. Small errors are ignored.

Physically easye to use. Does not challenge or exceed motor and sensory abilities: provide enough size for elements, sufficient contrast, etc...

Take aways

Take in consideration some of the following problems (unfortunately pretty common to find), picture them in your mind and try to categorise them according to both sets of heuristics:

  • clickable elements (e.g. links) that aren't perceived as such due to its bad UI;
  • buttons that are so small, that you have a difficult time clicking on without clicking something else;
  • items impossible to find through normal search in a e-commerce site.

These are just some of the examples that this new proposed set of heuristics by Børge aims to help categorising during a heuristic evaluation.
It is definitely an interesting new approach, but I will leave it up to you to decide on its use and if it fits both your product and your team's needs.

If you are interested in this and would like to have it explained in more detail , you can watch Børge's full presentation here!