You may have heard the term “heuristic evaluation” thrown around in the UX Design industry. Maybe you’re wondering what exactly it is and how it can be beneficial for your product. In this article you’ll learn what heuristic evaluation in UX design and why it’s beneficial. Furthermore, you’ll discover how you can conduct your own heuristic evaluation in UX Design to take your product to the next level.  

Quick side note: I’ll be using the words “product” and “product design” as umbrella terms to refer to the design of websites, mobile apps, desktop apps, software, systems and any other manner of digital products.

Heuristics in Psychology

The UX Design profession is kinda borrowing the term “heuristic” from the psychology profession. In psychology, heuristics are straight forward rules of thumb a person may use to make decisions and judgements everyday.

Us humans make hundreds if not thousands of choices each day. Imagine having to take the time to deeply contemplate and analyse each of those decisions. That would be one sure way to waste a lot of time and drive you batshit crazy at the same time.

In a sense, heuristics are not about making a perfect judgement in our everyday life. It’s about making one quickly based on your knowledge at hand, past experiences and expertise. In a nutshell, heuristics it’s about making decisions with the information you have.

In a nutshell, heuristics it’s about making decisions with the information you have.

Heuristics in UX

In UX Design you can also use rules of thumb to help you evaluate the usability of your design. However, in UX Design these rules of thumb are a well defined set of guiding principles or frameworks to help you evaluate your design.

Lucky for us, the web and product design methodologies has been around for quite some time. Long enough for professional experienced design practitioners to develop mature tried and tested conventions you can apply to your product immediately to make it better.

Thanks to the work of Jacob Nielsen and David Travis (and dozens of other practitioners) these frameworks act as a lens through which you can look at your product designs to help you review and evaluate its usability. What’s usability you ask? Let’s take a look at that shall we?

Heuristics and Usability

One can’t talk about heuristics in UX Design without mentioning usability. Doing heuristic evaluation in UX Design as all about testing whether the the design is user friendly. In other words, evaluating its usability to determine if people can use your product with ease and achieve their goals.

I’d also go further to say that usability should not be the only thing to evaluate in user experience heuristics. Every digital product aims to serve some kind of user need.

These user needs usually intersect with business objectives. Therefore it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind so you can do a more holistic heuristic evaluation in UX Design.  

Holistic Hueristic Evaluation in UX Design

What is Usability?

Usability is merely one of the design disciplines that fall under the big UX Design umbrella. Simply put, usability is the practise of making a product easy to use. It answers the question: Can users achieve specific goals in a specific context with effectiveness, efficiency and with a high degree of satisfaction?

The guys and girls over at the Nielsen Norman Group cleverly formulated the five elements that make up the pillars of usability.

Usability is defined by these 5 quality components or pillars:

    1. Learnability: How easy is it for people to perform basic tasks the first time they have to interact with your product?
    1. Efficiency: Once people have some familiarity with the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
    1. Memorability: When people return to the design after a period of not using it, how easy is for them to recall how to use it?
    1. Errors: How many errors do people make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from errors?
  1. Satisfaction: How pleasant, empowering or delightful is it to use the design? Yes, experiences with your product can be a very emotional one for people, especially if it’s a frustrating experience.

But, I digress… onwards with heuristics in UX…

Pros and Cons of Heuristic Evaluation in UX design

There are a few notable advantages and disadvantages to this method of evaluating whether a system or a design works as intended.


    • Inexpensive: It can provide quick and relatively inexpensive feedback to designers. This early evaluation and feedback in the design process can avoid costly rework down the line saving your project money and time .
  • Mix it up: You can combine heuristic evaluation with other usability testing methodologies such as user testing to give you more comprehensive validation and feedback of your design so your product can go to market with a high degree confidence .


  • Experts required: It requires knowledge and experience to apply the heuristics effectively and you’ll have to make sure you hire trained usability experts who are sometimes hard to find. Ideally you should use multiple experts and aggregate their results to cross reference findings so that insights and major issues can be validated with more accuracy.

Conducting Heuristic Evaluation in UX Design

When conducting a heuristic evaluation of your design it’s useful to have a good framework to work with. One can not write about this heuristic evaluation framework without mentioning Jakob Nielsen, who wrote about this in 1995 already. Here are Jakob Nielsen’s 10 general principles for interaction design. 

Visibility of system status

Visibility of System Status - Heuristic Evaluation In UX Design
Clearly show the system status on the screen so that people know what’s happening. This decreases user anxiety and increases user confidence.

One of the first heuristics on Jakob Nielsen’s list is that a system should always keep users informed about what is going on through appropriate feedback within reasonable time. For instance it’s always useful to see how much battery life you have left on your mobile phone, right?  

When people are not aware of what the system is doing or where they are in the design, it causes a frustration, uncertainty and quite possibly anxiety.

When people are not aware of what the system is doing or where they are in the design, it causes a frustration, uncertainty and quite possibly anxiety. This results in a lacklustre experience for your customers. Digital products should always inform users about the system status. Its always useful to let people know whether the product is loading, searching, processing shutting down or telling you where you are.

Familiarity between design and the real world

Heuristic Evaluation in UX Design - Familiarity between design and the real world
A typical metaphor we see in everyday computing. Folders are used as concepts that are familiar to people.

Recently I took a trip to Europe. More specifically Greece. It was a place unfamiliar to me and of course the language is foreign. Obviously this is what adventure is all about – to experience  and discover new things. Still, there was a small flicker of anxiety. I was concerned that people won’t understand me and I’ll get lost and wind up in places I’d rather not be.

However, I quickly became used to getting around. I found that most people understood English and finding my way around was much the same as in my home country. Nearly everything felt ‘familiar’.

The moral of my story? By nature, human beings find comfort in familiarity. It is for this reason that the second usability heuristic, match between the system and the real world, is so important.

The principle states that your product should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than technical jargon such as, “System Error 500-1-6”. Suffice to say, your product design should follow real-world conventions or metaphors that will help your product feel familiar and increase peoples confidence in in using it.  

User control and freedom

You might agree that one surefire way to instigate an uprising and angry protests is to take away people’s right to choose. People like to know that they are in control of their own life and that they are free to do the things they love to do. Even if we make mistakes we know we can always choose to course correct and have the freedom to try again or do something else.

In the same way when people use your digital product they often choose system functions by mistake. At this point they will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through laborious processes or having to restart the system.

Make sure that people can undo and redo actions and make sure they can exit any particular state without resulting in any penalties such as data loss or system reboots. The user must be in control and feel in control of his environment.

Consistency and standards

Having design and language standards and applying them consistently throughout the system is vital. Why? Because it provides a level comfort and confidence for people when the system behaves in a familiar way.

Furthermore, these design standards supports product and brand experience. However the language and design standards must be tested and validated with real users to make sure the system aligns with people’s mental models. Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing.

Error prevention

It’s important to communicate errors to users gracefully, actionably, and clearly to prevent causing anxiety in people when they use your system. Even better than well handled error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place.

Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action. Users are often distracted from the task at hand, so prevent unconscious errors by offering suggestions, utilising constraints, and being flexible.

Recognition rather than recall

Our brain’s ability to remember things accurately are notoriously bad. Sometimes we need a little help to make easier choices and get things done. For instance, my wife has a checklist of regular grocery items we need to buy each month. Imagine having to keep this information in your head every time you go to the grocery store.

When it comes to supporting recognition (rather than recall) in digital products you’re design should focus on minimising a person’s memory load by making objects, actions and options clearly visible.

The user should not have to remember information from one part of the interface to another. Navigation options and instructions for use of your product should be visible or easily accessible whenever appropriate.

Flexibility and efficiency of use

Your product should cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Here’s an example of what I mean. If you use Photoshop you might relate to this story.

On a few occasions I’ve had to edit 10s to 100s of images in Photoshop. Lucky for me, Photoshop has a batch processing functionality that allows me to edit 100s of photos by recording a few actions and then allowing me to apply those actions to all the images simultaneously. This is an example of of how a product can be flexible enough to cater for advanced users and make the it efficient to use.

On the other hand if I only had 2 or 3 photos to edit, Photoshop allows me to edit them individually. This caters for perhaps novice users or just a specific use case. This is an example of how a system can be flexible enough to accommodate novice users too.

Aesthetic and minimalist design

My hypothesis is that in our hyper-connected time starved society, people’s cognitive abilities, energy and ability to focus are being challenged from all directions. Surfacing just the right amount of information at the right time presented in an aesthetically pleasing way helps to reduce cognitive load while helping people achieve their goals when they use your product.

The debate of whether aesthetics in digital design provides value is long over – it does add value – as long as it serves the goal of the person using your product. Neatly organised layouts, appropriate use of colour, legible typography and clear actions reduces cognitive load and supports user goals which in turn supports business objectives.

Help users recognise, diagnose, and recover from errors

In UX design I’ve learned many lessons the hard way. One of those lessons is about error handling. Error handling is a critical consideration during the design process and must never be left as “that thing” we deal with at the end of the project.

Error handling is far more than just writing fancy friendly constructive error messages. Think of the graphic visibility of the error – it needs to be very obvious and clear. Just having red highlights and text simply is not good enough. There must be a graphic indication about the error to support accessibility of the product.

Furthermore, think of preserving a person’s information as they fill in forms or perform a series of actions that perhaps need to be stored somewhere for later use. Make sure people don’t lose their information when they’ve been filling in a form or going through a series of actions. If for some reason people lose that information during the input process it can will be a highly frustrating for them and will influence their attitude toward the product and the brand negatively .

Some more tips we get from the Nielsen Norman Group is that good error messages are polite, precise, and constructive. Furthermore, make error messages clearly visible, reduce the work required to fix the problem, and educate users along the way.

Help and documentation

In an ideal world people should be able to use a system without having to refer to some kind of help, support or documentation. Alas, the world is not always ideal and we need to cater for the worst case scenario or lowest common denominator.

Help, support and documentation is therefore quite necessary, especially for complex systems. Important to remember – help information should be easy to find, search for, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too complex to navigate.


You may have gathered by now, heuristic evaluation is a relatively fast and inexpensive way to evaluate a design. However, depending on the scope and complexity of the design, it does require a few trained and experienced individuals to cross reference findings and draw insights from them. Heuristic evaluation is by no means the only technique to be used to validate and audit designs. User testing, customer interviews and analytics are also key ways to understand how people your product and should be combined with heuristic evaluation techniques.

Your thoughts?

Can you think of any other heuristic evaluation principles with which to evaluate designs with? Your thoughts are welcome so please do share your views and unique perspectives in the comments section below.