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The 10 Usability Heuristics Explained in Simple Terms

Usability heuristics are important to evaluate the quality of any design. Learn more about these heuristics and why they matter for designers.

12 min read

The job of UI/UX designers is challenging but equally rewarding. With more and more digital products and services being introduced every single day, the importance of designers for any organization is more than ever. The design team not only helps in creating interactive user interfaces but also serves as a strong connection between the technical teams and the target audience. The success or failure of any product is highly dependent on its design. However, there’s one question that has always been critical for designers and organizations investing in design: how does one assess the quality of any product or service design?

Expert designers and researchers have come up with various principles and standards that can be used to evaluate a design. One such approach is the heuristic evaluation in UX design. It is one of the most widely used methods where designers can assess the usability of a product or service in a holistic manner. Usability heuristics, in other words, include some golden principles that can be followed by anyone in the field of design. These are equally useful for freelance designers, a UX design team, a web or mobile app usability agency, or any other relevant organization. Professional designers, as well as students of design, can keep these heuristics in mind, as a checklist, to self-assess their designs. These standards can also be used as a first step to evaluate a design where the goal is to improve usability and usefulness.

Evaluation of User Interface is Critical (IconScout)

In this article, we introduce usability heuristics and discuss their importance for UI/UX designers. We also explain the most commonly used ten heuristics in simple terms to help you improve the quality of your future projects.

  1. What are usability heuristics?
  2. The importance of usability heuristics
  3. List of usability heuristics

Read along as we unpack usability heuristics and discover exciting ways to evaluate designs.

What Are Usability Heuristics?

When it comes to a user interface, evaluation is a critical part of the design process. It is there that designers get a better understanding of the issues and the frustrations of users that can then be resolved iteratively. Heuristic evaluation is a process that can help in identifying the issues strategically. These standards have been created after years of research, combining the knowledge gained from various design projects.

The usability inspection method based on heuristic evaluation is attributed to Jakob Nielsen. According to Nielsen’s research and findings, there are ten usability heuristics that designers need to be aware of when assessing the quality of any design. These heuristics cover the entire journey of the target users as they interact with an interface, whether in the physical or the digital environment. UI/UX designers can follow the standards strategies presented by Jakob Nielsen to evaluate the usability and usefulness of their designs.

The Importance of Usability Heuristics

Usability heuristic evaluation is a method that provides designers with a clear approach to assessing any design. The ten principles of this method help designers in conducting thorough UX research during the design phase and once the interactive prototypes have been created. With a list of clear patterns to look at in any design, UX design teams can efficiently analyze a design, saving time and resources. These can also allow teams to focus on the specific usability issues, without going into an extended dialogue about every single design choice.

There are several ways in which usability heuristics can improve the overall design process. Some of the important benefits are as follows.

Importance of Usability Heuristics

Strategic approach to UX design

Usability heuristics serve as a handbook for the design teams, providing them with a checklist they can use to evaluate a user interface design. The presence of these heuristics brings a logical order to the evaluation and testing phase of any design. Therefore, it becomes easy for the design teams to collaborate, stay on the same page, and evaluate all designs in a standardized way. In the absence of such heuristics, it can get hard to find common ground as the field of UI/UX design is unique, with a lot of room for creativity.

Quick and easy evaluation

With the help of usability heuristics, the time spent on the evaluation of any design can be greatly reduced. Although there are certain principles of interaction design dictating any project, it is easy to lose sight of them when working on complex products and services. Additionally, in organizations with big design teams, it is always important to keep this moving, as multiple projects are going on at the same time. In such cases, having access to a resource like usability heuristics can come in handy. UI/UX designers can refer to specific usability guidelines, irrespective of the nature of the project, and assess a design quickly and easily.

Stronger design systems

When it comes to different types of UX design projects, a design system can help in staying on top of things. Usability heuristics can be made an essential part of the design system in any organization, thus localizing the principles and ensuring better usability of products and services. Just like any other aspect of design, these heuristics are not set in stone and have a lot of room to be molded creatively based on the needs of an organization. Therefore, having an understanding of usability heuristics can help designers in creating stronger, holistic design systems, meeting the needs of the audience as well as the organization.

Heuristics Make Design Systems Stronger (Muzli on Medium)

List of Usability Heuristics

Now that we’ve discussed the meaning of usability heuristics and established their importance for UI/UX designers, it is time to do a deep dive into the heuristics themselves. As mentioned before, according to Jakob Nielsen, there are ten most used usability heuristics that designers should focus on, when evaluating any product or service.

What follows is a simple explanation of the usability heuristics, along with their significance for designers. These principles can be thought of as a usability heuristics checklist that can improve designs of physical as well as digital products.

Most Used Usability Heuristics (Wikimedia Commons)

1. Visibility of system status

A user interface design should always provide the users with the critical and useful information upfront. This means that the design should give appropriate feedback to the users as they interact with it. Keeping the users informed about the system's functions is essential for any product or service. One of the best ways to meet this heuristic is to ensure quick and helpful feedback to the audience. For example, when the users press a button on the website, they should see something happening on the screen, providing them with information about the system status.

2. Match between system and the real world

One thing that often gets overlooked in human-computer interaction is the match of a digital design with that of the real world. A design should follow real-world conventions so the users can relate to it and understand it better. This improves the usefulness and usability of the product or service, making the users feel more comfortable. One such example is the page breaks in any typical word processing tool. These page breaks are not necessary for a digital document but are created to give an experience matching the real world, thus making it easier for the users to interact with the design.

Follow Real World Conventions in Design (Wikimedia Commons)

3. User control and freedom

One of the fundamental principles of UX design is to give maximum control to the users. This means that they should have enough freedom to customize a design to their liking, making it easier for them to interact with it. Giving more control to users saves them from making big mistakes. One such example is avoiding the accidental deletion of a document. When the users press the delete key and the item goes away forever, that can be detrimental in many ways. A confirmation option or the ability to undo deletion can help in overcoming this issue.

4. Consistency and standards

It is important for the design of a product or service to be consistent, both in an internal and external manner. Internal consistency means that all the design elements in a product use similar attributes, such as font choice, color palettes, etc. This will ensure that the users get used to the design quickly and feel comfortable with it. External consistency focuses on the ways in which a design meets the global principles of consistency and standards users are already familiar with. For example, when a website is opened on a mobile phone, it is expected to have a menu at the top or a hamburger icon indicating the presence of a menu. The users can understand the purpose of such a button in a single glance, thus saving time and effort.

Consistency as a Usability Heuristic (UX Passion)

5. Error prevention

The users are bound to make some errors when interacting with a design. The problem gets a little more complicated in digital environments where a single click or tap can take them to an entirely different web page. This is why it is important to save the users from such situations where they move away from your product or service. Error prevention is one of the ten usability heuristics that designers need to be aware of. This can be achieved by writing good error messages so the users have a clear understanding of the design. For example, when the users enter a wrong password or username, the error messages should be quick, short, and easy to understand.

6. Recognition rather than recall

When the users interact with your design, more often than not they are looking for quick and easy ways in which to accomplish their tasks. In other words, their minds are already occupied with a lot of stuff and they do not want to spend hours understanding your design. It is important for designers to be cognizant of the user's memory load. The users should be able to identify important design elements quickly. This is where good content strategy and visual hierarchy come in handy.

Familiar Designs for Easy Recognition (HiFives)

7. Flexibility and efficiency of use

If, on the one hand, it is essential to guide the users and help them learn the design, then, on the other, it is also important to give them the flexibility they need. This means that if the users are already familiar with the design and can perform their tasks more efficiently, the interface should not serve as a roadblock. One such example is keyboard shortcuts. When the users are interacting with your digital product, they can perform the tasks faster using shortcuts. Your interface should aid this experience, instead of slowing the users down.

8. Aesthetic and minimalist design

Visual design and aesthetics help in making the design stand out in the competitive market. When working on a design project, UI/UX designers should make sure that the aesthetics are always taken into consideration. This, however, does not mean that the usability of the product is compromised. The difficult task of designers is to find the right balance between aesthetics and usability, and this is exactly what they are paid for. A design is also aesthetically pleasing when it is minimalistic. Complicated designs with fancy interfaces tend to frustrate the users. For example, if the users open a web page and there is a lot going on there, they will jump away from it without spending much time. Therefore, it is important to focus on the needs of the users and to create useful, aesthetically pleasing designs.

Aesthetically Pleasing and Clean Designs (Trusted Reviews)

9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors

Along with error prevention, designers should always give due attention to ways in which they can help the users recognize and recover from errors. This means that if the users make a mistake, they should be notified quickly and clearly. This will allow them to completely understand the problem and its consequences.

Additionally, the error messages should also provide information about ways in which the users can recover from these errors. For example, if the users make a big purchase without intending to, they should not have to face financial loss or struggle to find out the cancellation process. All this information should be made readily available.

10. Help and documentation

All UI/UX design projects need some documentation to be successful. User manuals, reference articles, FAQs, and tutorials are extremely helpful in understanding a product or service and using it in the best possible way. However, it is important to write these documents in a simple manner, using plain language, so as not to confuse or overwhelm the users. Good documentation adds value to the user experience and helps the audience interact efficiently with a design.

Useful Documentation for the Audience (Helpjuice)

Conclusion

UI/UX designers are always looking for strategies to improve the design process that can have a direct impact on the quality of their end products. The heuristics discussed in this article are one of the best ways to assess the usability of a design. Several cases can be studied where these standards have positively impacted design projects. Looking at some usability heuristics examples can serve as a motivation for new designers, inspiring them to make the most out of usability evaluation.

Along with the ten principles discussed in this article, some researchers also include accessibility of a design as an essential eleventh element in usability heuristics. Whether working on a website, mobile application, or a physical product, accessibility should always be given due attention. It will not be wrong to include it as a part of the usability heuristics.

One thing to note here is that usability heuristics should not be confused with usability testing. The former is a set of guiding principles and a strategic approach to the evaluation of a user interface. The latter is a specific testing process that involves feedback from real users in a real-world context. Both of these processes are equally important for designers, whether working on freelance projects or as part of a design team in an organization.

Having a thorough understanding of usability heuristics goes a long way in the design process. These heuristics bring structure to the end results of a project, making designers more efficient and enabling them to use their creative skills more effectively.