In web architecture, “heuristic evaluation” is a fancy way to say “I’m going to run through this website myself and see what I catch”. Or at least that is what I think so far. However, it isn’t exactly the easiest. On Jakob Nielson’s blog useit.com, he points out that everyone can catch something but no expert can catch all of the problems doing a heuristic evaluation. There is even a neat graphic for it that I wanted to redesign (because what graphic should have a paragraph to explain it), but I didn’t come across a great looking solution. Here are the two tries of a new graph (of course, done quickly, because who has time in January?).
What do you look for as an evaluator? It actually is very different from a simple usability test. The guidelines are easy to nod to, but unlike usability testing which can be done on any person generally, many of the guidelines for evaluation require some experience and some cognitive psychology background to understand. It all seems to come down to reducing the how much the user has to think (cognitive load) so far:
- Make things easy to perceive and understand (faster processing when you can read it and when words are simple)
- Reinforce perception using one sense (visual) with another (touch). This redundancy can help should the website/interface break in some way, accommodate those with disability and finally actually reduce how much a person thinks. Putting some load on visual and some on auditory helps both (ever watch a movie in english with subtitles?)
- Put things down on the site versus making a person remember (i.e. how sites write down what you ordered for you)
- Put things down on the site so people will have less to worry about (e.g. knowing how long until the page loads reduces uncertainty and gives a person something to work off of)
- Design the website so it matches how people work in the real world
- Design the website so it consistent with the standards for this type of thing
- Prevent errors (I love websites that tell you if you’re passwords aren’t matching before you click submit, I love auto-save)
- Allow people to fix mistakes (often called “forgiveness”, often in the form of “undo” buttons)
- Reduce extra information. Too much information is always bad. Even if it is just a “neat looking graphic”
- Group together what goes well together (this could fit under 4, but bears its own number)
Of course, some rules are meant to broken. Without some rebelling, how would we discover the true potential of the web versus the real world? How would you distinguish your brand? And so on. In fact, choosing precisely where you deviate is what I’d like to call “mediated creativity”. I should post on what creativity is.
On the aforementioned testing I did for a friend, here are some example suggestions that came mostly from my evaluation:
- Autorecommend when typing in search bars will help eliminate misspellings
- Make the “about us” and all that bigger. Small font is bad.
- I don’t see why the express friend locator is on here too. I know you are putting it on every page, but you want to minimize things that don’t belong on a page. Simple is better for users and reduces cognitive load.
I hope that one day I can expand on this post. I would like to add more rules and insights, but this is all I have so far. If WP had more room for free accounts, I’d like to add more pictures. Of course, this expands to outside of websites and electronic user interfaces. Physical product design is actually where I first learned about affordances and matching your design to what people expect. Don Norman has a great book on that. Of course, I didn’t really learn it well. “Engineering design” does not formally teach you this. They expect you to kind of just get it. Even my user-centered design course went over this and expected that practice would guide you (as awesome as the course was).
I learned this all from these sites and whatever knowledge I seem to be accruing from my cognitive psychology program (i.e. the course/reading Introduction to Human Factors). If you are learning like me, go practice on a website and you’ll have a cool example to work from too. Choose one that doesn’t have usability experts already working on it.
So far though, I feel like what I learned from web architecture was not hard to pick up. It will take practice to get good, ask the right questions, and avoid biasing, but I could just evaluate a few websites and get feedback from a mentor. As I advance in the field, I wonder if a single good course with a good instructor could really make you learn all these techniques. We’ll see as I get through this. I could be missing a huge chunk. A chunk that will smack me in the face one day. Or perhaps this is why engineering schools expect you to just get it. It is not like I claim to understand magic yet.
Posts coming up: what is usability, what is creativity, my design of a phone for the older crowd, why cover letters make me nervous, eyetracking, I make this website usable (like I should have from the start), how I like to do PowerPoints and why
http://www.sitepoint.com/heuristic-evaluation-guide/ (explains Nielson’s 10 better than Nielson)
http://cogtool.hcii.cs.cmu.edu/ – a nifty tool that includes a free dummy tester for your user interface