How to improve your digital product with a heuristic review
A useful framework for evaluating digital product performance.
We often say that a great product is never truly done. There is always something to improve or change based on user needs and requests, research findings, usability, or industry standards. It’s not enough for a product to be live and good looking. Effective product owners care about performance and whether their product is actually contributing to the business goals. Given the agile nature in which most mature digital teams work, there is almost always a list of feature improvements, bugs, accessibility tickets, and user requests waiting in the wings to be written up, prioritized, assigned, and implemented.
Once you have committed to making product improvements, it can be difficult to know what to prioritize or where to start without first looking at the data. One framework that we find especially useful is the heuristic review.
This is a manual evaluation conducted by two or more of our user experience experts to evaluate a product’s usability on a holistic level. Websites and digital products are evaluated against a set of recognized usability principles commonly known as heuristics to identify problems. The outputs are annotated screenshots of a product , a scorecard, a prioritization matrix, and a list of actionable insights to guide upcoming phases of a product improvement cycle. The review also includes a comparison to best in class competitors for insight into what an improved solution might look like. Understanding what the standards are in the industry can help us anticipate users’ expectations.
Focus on principles, not tasks.
Although sometimes confused with usability testing, heuristic reviews are actually quite different. Both are methods of testing the functionality of a website, app, or other digital product, but a heuristic review is a comprehensive review by a team of user experience experts whereas usability testing involves observing users as they attempt to complete tasks. While usability testing is an excellent way to identify users’ pain points in key flows, it fails to reveal why. And furthermore, it fails to reveal the issues that may be plaguing the product on a holistic level.
User experience experts begin by speaking with product teams to understand their business goals, history, users, and known challenges. They do not however receive a product demonstration because the goal is to bring experts into the evaluation with the same context that customers or users get.
Adhering to standards and following conventions contributes to a predictable user experience. Predictability makes products easier to use, increasing task completion rates and reducing errors.
While a lot can be said about how design standards are created, legitimized, and reinforced, for the purpose of this insight we are going to focus on why standards are worth adhering to. As Jakob’s Law says, “users spend most of their time on other websites [and applications],” which means that every user has been trained to expect common interactive elements to look and behave in a certain way. Unnecessary deviation from these conventions creates what we call cognitive friction, which can lead to user frustration and even product abandonment. While in some cases there may be good reason to go against conventions, it is best practice to avoid making users think more than they need to.
At the interface level, one effective example would be the use of a trash can icon to represent the “delete” function. That image is one that can be found in nearly every digital experience, from your computer’s operating system to your email inbox. As users we’ve come to expect it. Now imagine wanting to delete something and being greeted, within the same product, by a dumpster icon in one instance and a trash can in another. Sure, you are likely to understand, especially with the help of some supportive text, but not without extra thought. If one icon is used in one part of the product to indicate “deleting” it should be used throughout. Beyond usability, there are also brand implications of inconsistency. When a user experience or interface is not consistent, it can be easy to interpret the inconsistencies as errors, painting the brand in a bad light.
Give users control
Every digital product has a key set of user stories, and the ease with which these can be navigated is critical to user engagement, loyalty, and product success. When evaluating user control and freedom, we look to understand whether users — especially first-time users — can complete key tasks within a product. It is important that users can course correct and go back in when they make a mistake or change their minds.
For example, e-commerce checkout sequences often intentionally strip away user controls in service of their conversion rate. While it’s important to reduce distractions to keep users moving through the intended flow (a business objective), it is also important to let them edit their orders. Many of us with a proclivity for online shopping know the frustration of reviewing your cart after providing payment information, finding a mistake in your order and then being asked to re-enter your payment information. Even worse is being directed back to the homepage when trying to edit an order. Nobody likes to feel trapped. A good user experience is one that gives people an escape hatch, allowing them to take a step back, make a change, or exit a flow.
Minimize user’s memory load
Improving your information architecture empowers users to find what they are looking for quickly and intuitively no matter where they are within the product. It is important to always maintain task-relevant information within the current display. When working with the City of Everett on their website redesign we understood from the data that some tasks were more important or in demand than others. For example, many Everett residents were coming to the website to pay parking tickets and apply for permits. We made the most sought-after tasks more prominent because thanks to the data, we knew what people were trying to achieve. Our designers implemented a quick-access tool that reduced the time for task completion by highlighting six of the most common task categories. Users could immediately execute their desired task by progressively refining their desired actions so that they could then be redirected to the correct page for fulfillment.
Users should be informed of the system’s status at all times. Communicating the current state provides users with a sense of control and increases confidence that everything is working as expected. Feedback can be as simple as a change of color when the user clicks or taps a button or an indication that an item was added to the cart. One of the most critical moments to communicate system status is when the system is processing a request. When things take longer than users are accustomed to, demystifying the wait by showing progress can help to engender patience from the user. This also reduces the likelihood that they’ll press the same button repeatedly or exit the flow out of frustration.
Providing appropriate feedback has become the bare minimum, as modern web technologies and app development frameworks have made it easier than ever to create rich user interface interactions. This has effectively raised the bar for what users have come to expect from best-in-class digital products.
In the design of any digital experience, the aim is to eliminate friction to help the user complete the task. One of the best ways to guide users towards the correct use of a product is through effective error prevention. For any user input, you can increase the likelihood of a valid entry by providing context or clues. A simple example of this is the inclusion of help text to let users know password requirements rather than informing them only after an unsuccessful attempt. This sets expectations and reduces user frustration. For when errors do occur, the messaging should be thoughtful and easy to consume in order to help users provide the correct input with ease.
Align with the real world
From language to user flows to UI behavior, effective UX/UI design should feel intuitive. This means using language users are familiar with and making visual elements behave the way users would expect them to naturally.
Leveraging familiarity with the real world goes beyond visual resemblance. Each culture has established, widely spread metaphors that should be taken into account when designing interfaces. For example, in the Western world, we associate more with up and less with down. So a headphone design in which the button that increases the volume is placed above the button that lowers represents a natural mapping that takes advantage of this metaphor. Such natural mappings that follow users’ expectations and match their view of the world make it easy for users to complete tasks intuitively without having to remember any additional information.
Function over form
While we of course want products to be beautiful, the design should first and foremost support the underlying objective. Content should be displayed in a clear and clutter-free way to support legibility and understanding, helping users complete tasks with ease.
This applies to dialogue too. Dialogue should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every additional piece of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant information and diminishes their relative visibility.
Actionable usability insights
By looking at a product as a whole and evaluating it based on principles instead of tasks alone, user experience experts can uncover useful insights to improve the user experience. This knowledge can then inform a product team’s next steps when it comes to product improvements or redesigns. To support our clients in actioning the insights from a heuristic review, we typically provide a scorecard and detailed report. This shows teams how their product’s UX stacks up, and includes annotated screenshots of their product to highlight the higher priority items. Issues are presented on a matrix that considers not only the impact of an improvement, but also the effort level. Framing the findings this way enables teams to more easily make decisions about their next steps and begin improving their product.
Bringing in an impartial team of experts to evaluate your product can help to legitimize the findings, especially when pitching initiatives . Evaluating the product without a demo helps us uncover what real users are likely to think and feel, without relying on their individual input. A heuristic review makes it possible for product owners to quantitatively evaluate their product based on parameters that are seemingly subjective.
Do you want to understand how your product could be improved? Get in touch with us about heuristic review at firstname.lastname@example.org.