Is heuristic evaluation still relevant to UX?

A vintage Mac book pro on a white background

Have you ever taken part in #UXchat on twitter? It’s a weekly one hour live discussion which is run by UserZoom and hosted by different UX experts from around the world.  Each week, the host chooses the topic, which can vary massively from design to UX theory and ways to conduct workshops.  Earlier this month we hosted the chat and chose a topic which was always going to divide opinion…

Usability heuristics were first created back in 1990 by the two godfathers of usability Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich. Nielsen then went on to develop them further, publishing the final 10 principles in his 1994 book ‘Usability Engineering’. This was the first time that these types of rules had been specifically created for user interface design.

Since then, they’ve formed the very backbone of how modern user experience works. But, as they approach 30 years old and with huge technological, design and working style changes in that time we were interested to see what our peers thought about heuristics now, in 2019.

We posed three questions to the group. Here are some of our favourite answers. If you want to see the whole conversation, head to twitter to see the full thread.

1) Nielsen’s heuristic principles are almost 30 years old – are they still relevant?

The overarching answer was yes, although some people were keen to point out that the principles should be used more as a general rule of thumb than a firm guide.

Adam_UX on twitter talking about Neilsen's heuristic principles
Shain McAlindon engaging in #UXChat on twitter

Some people felt even more strongly that heuristics are still as relevant as the day they were created. After all, they came out of a lot of testing and whilst the interfaces may have moved on, the principles remain broadly the same.

Moln Shalkh on twitter talking about Neilsen's heuristic principles
The UX Person on twitter taking part in #UXChat and talking about heuristic principles


2) Is heuristic evaluation as worthwhile as usability testing? Which is better?

This question was always going to split the group. For us, UX without users (ie.testing) is not true UX and so, whilst heuristic evaluation is useful, we don’t see a time when it could replace testing with real users and that’s always our advice to clients.

That said, some of our group referenced situations when testing might not be possible, for example when budget is very small. Heuristic evaluation is better than nothing at all.

OJ Quevedo from BetterUX talking about heuristic analysis as part of #UXchat
A tweet from Stacy Holmstedt during #UXChat
Natural Interaction on twitter saying that usability testing should always be done with real users as part of #UXChat
Two images showing an example of a UI design for a cat feeding station and another with cats all on top of each other struggling to use it - highlighted by user testing


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3) Do you think that the 10 general principles for interaction design are still correct? Is there anything which needs adding or removing?

Given that the general consensus from Q1 was that Neilsen’s heuristic principles are broadly still useful, it’s no surprise that people agreed that they are still correct, when taken as a guide not the rule.

Here’s a reminder of the 10 principles:

  1. Visibility of system status
  2. Match between system and the real world
  3. User control and freedom
  4. Consistency and standards
  5. Error prevention
  6. Recognition rather than recall
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
  9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
  10. Help and documentation

Read them in full here.

Most of the discussion took place around #10 - help and documentation. Since 1994, user interface design has changed a lot and in most cases, for example Alexa, google drive, iPhones, the on-boarding is so user friendly that a manual or reams of documentation are just not necessary. This doesn’t mean though, that ‘help and documentation’ should be removed from the list.

A tweet from Box UK which says that help and documentation are very important
Mira Nair on twitter taking part in #UXChat and talking about modern

There was also some talk about adding an #11 to cover responsive design, something which has developed since Neilsen wrote the original principles but again, using them as a guide means that they can be interpreted as needed.

Adam_UX on twitter talking about the importance of accessibility in heuristic evaluation
Shain McAlindon on twitter taking part in #UXchat

Would you like to take part in UX chat?

This one-hour live twitter discussion (via the #uxchat Twitter hashtag) takes place every Thursday,  4pm GMT / 11am ET / 8am PT. To find out more and see this week’s topic, follow Better UX.

See you there!

Benton reading a blog post

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