As UI designers, we are confronted with design problems every day. Knowing how best to tackle these issues means investigating, analysing, testing and prototyping solutions until we get the answer that fits our user’s needs.
UI design is less about making something look attractive (although it helps) and more knowing how to create a valid path from idea to execution, backed with statistics and evidence, for the benefit of our users. Otherwise, you are shooting in the dark and crossing your fingers you hit the bullseye. Thankfully, instead of relying on blind faith, there exist usability heuristics to steadily guide UI designers and keep us on the right track.
What are Usability Heuristics?
The word heuristics loosely comes from the ancient Greek meaning to find or to discover. Mostly, a heuristic is a guideline – an experience-based approach to problem-solving. Heuristics should not be treated as rules or proven solutions to design problems. They are good enough answers to problems instead of the best possible answer.
You might then wonder why you would want a solution that is just good enough instead of one that is the best. A heuristic is something which can help you to find the best answer – it tells you how to look but not accurately what to find, to quote developer Steve McConnell.
An easy way to think of heuristics is to view them as a quick fix – shortcuts, primarily to a problem which, potentially, could need more effort and thought later on. UI designers should take heuristics with a pinch of salt and not rely too heavily on them.
The Benefit of Using Heuristics in UI Design
Despite the above, heuristics have their place. Quick fixes they may be, but that is one of their key characteristics, too. When you are designing something on a deadline and do not have the time to carry out extensive research, or you are short on resources, then heuristics are a handy tool to use if you are confronted with a design conundrum and need some easy guidance. Heuristics work a lot of the time but not every time.
Some other benefits of usability heuristics include:
- They are suitable for providing quick feedback early in the design process
- Heuristics can be combined with more fleshed-out user testing methodologies
- It is relatively inexpensive to carry out heuristic evaluations
- Heuristics can be put to the test rapidly on prototypes like those made with a tool like Justinmind
Usability Heuristic Evaluation: What do you Need?
The most widely known and widely used heuristics within user experience and interface design undoubtedly come from Jakob Nielsen’s 1994 seminal 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design. UI designers around the world apply these ten general principles when creating mobile and web experiences. However, these are not the only heuristics out in the world. There are plenty more. There are even guidelines from 1986 which include over 944 heuristics.
For a heuristic evaluation to be effective, you will need:
- A task list
- 3 to 5 evaluators. These have to be experts in the field, and you need multiple because different people will spot different problems. Two heads are always better than one.
- A set of defined heuristics/best practices, such as Jakob Nielsen’s.
- Carry out the heuristic evaluation before user testing and during. Heuristics need to work with other usability methodologies to be effective.
What are the Limitations of Heuristics?
When you need to delve deep into a UI design problem, a heuristic cannot help you. Sometimes you actually need professionals to diagnose a specific issue. It is not always easy to get your hands on a usability expert (hence the prevalence of heuristics in the first place) and when you do;, it will not be cheap. Heuristics, then, are an excellent method of solving problems with minimal expense making them a practical choice for UI designers. However, when issues linger or become more complex, a reliance on heuristics should be avoided.
Another severe limitation of a heuristic evaluation is that it does not say anything about the quality of a design in context. Indeed, heuristics can guide you when creating a user experience, but that is where their utility ends. If a client needs a redesign of their website and a UI designer creates one with the heuristics in mind, what those same heuristics do not do is assess the quality of the redesign – this would require more than loose guidelines.
7 Heuristics That all UI Designers Should Know
While Jakob Nielsen’s may be the most popular of all the heuristics out there, there are others. Let us take a look at seven must-know alternatives to Nielsen’s heuristics that can help you when designing user interfaces.
1. Strive for Consistency
Computer scientist Ben Shneiderman’s number one heuristic for user interface design is “strive for consistency“. Oscar Wilde once said that consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative, but in reality, UX design requires us to be rational and thoughtful. In this instance, UI designers should ensure that any prompts, dialogue boxes, and menus should all share the same characteristics. The same is to be said of colour, typography and layout.
2. Keep Users in Control
Another one of Shneiderman’s golden rules is to keep users in control. So when designing user interfaces, reduce the number of surprises that a user may encounter. Users need familiarity and shudder at the thought of tedious data-entry sequences. When a user wants information, it is best to just give it to them when they want it.
Nadine Kintscher writes that all the settings on our phones, such as adjusting brightness, give us control and even though these adjustments might only extend battery life for a few moments, it feels good that we have that (albeit small) level of control.
3. Reduce Users’ Minimum Steps
Dr Iain Connell argues that when designing a user interface, UI designers should reduce a user’s minimum steps as much as possible. Getting from A to B should be a breeze and free of headaches. By reducing the number of taps or clicks a user has to take, means they will get where they want to be quicker. For experienced users, reducing the minimum steps might include shortcuts or hotkeys.
4. Users Should Know Where They Are
Getting lost is not fun. Getting lost in an app or website is even less so. Just like most streets and roads have signs with their name to let pedestrians know where they are, so must user interfaces, according to Connell. If a user is going through a sequence of events, this should be shown somewhere in the design. Moreover, it should not be possible to enter a state from which there is no exit.
5. Avoid Obtuse Language
Any website or mobile app should speak to the users in language and terminology they understand. That requires avoiding obtuse language that would go over the heads of your intended audience. No jargon allowed, only short and easily digestible language. If the language is verbose, it is a clear sign the users of your system have been forgotten. However, Connell notes that language is something that is easily changed and adapted.
6. Make the UI Aesthetically Appropriate
We said that UX design is not only about making things attractive, but aesthetics should not be sidelined. Weinschenk and Barker say that UI design should maintain its ‘aesthetic integrity’ and be tailored to appeal to its intended audience. So if you are designing something for visually impaired users, using the font size 11 across every page may not be the best way to go about things.
7. Present New Information with Meaningful Aids to Interpretation
One of Jill Gerhardt-Powals’ heuristics is to present new information with meaningful aids to interpretation. This means employing metaphor where possible (although avoid being too esoteric) and familiar frameworks. Metaphor can be used to make the unfamiliar, familiar. Take desktop folders which hold your files – they are not really folders, but they have visually represented this way for users to understand concepts, systems and frameworks more easily.
Heuristics have their place, but an over-reliance on them can be disastrous when it comes to UI design. Keep them in mind and let them be a gentle guide as they do contain relevant wisdom that can be applied to the user experience. Moreover, if you are adventurous and have the money – it could not hurt to try a heuristic evaluation.
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