Do the 10 Usability Heuristics Still Hold Up Over Two Decades Later?
by Sheena Lyonnais
posted on 05-05-2017
When Jakob Nielsen first introduced the 10 Usability Heuristics in 1994, they were among the only sets of guidelines designers had to reference for usability in interaction design, a discipline that was still in its infancy. The heuristics were designed to serve more as a general rule of thumb than a set of hard rules, yet more than two decades later they remain relevant to design practices.
The heuristics provide a format that designers can reference to perform a usability audit. By contrasting a project to the 10 heuristics, you can quickly assess whether it’s on track to meet the needs of users.
It’s a back-to-basics approach that is perhaps more pertinent now than ever before. Today’s users are overwhelmed by a plethora of technological innovations and options in hardware, software and applications alike, so by framing projects within the 10 heuristics you can help to ensure that you’re covering your bases when it comes to creating designs that make sense and feel natural for users.
The 10 Usability Heuristics
While the 10 usability heuristics still hold up today, there are some additional user needs that must be factored into consideration. Below we have summarized the 10 heuristics and included some insight into how they apply in 2017.
1. Visibility of System Status
When Nielsen first penned the heuristics, systems likely referred to the actual device the user was using. The idea was that the system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.” Today’s designers can keep users informed through a variety of mechanisms and tools; everything from chatbots to push notifications can be used to ensure a user remains informed.
2. Match Between System and the Real World
This heuristic is about truly knowing and understanding your user so you are speaking to them in a way that makes sense to them in their real world while avoiding “system-oriented terms” and jargon.
This heuristic speaks to user and ethnographic research. Different users communicate in different ways, which means their “real world” may vary from another set of users. The heuristic also encourages designers to provide information in a “natural and logical order,” which means having a general understanding of how people process and interpret information.
3. User Control and Freedom
This heuristic is about giving users the option to undo a mistake without having to “go through an extended dialogue.” It’s about empowering your users to be able to fix errors likely caused by navigational mishaps or by clicking on the wrong thing without your intervention. It encourages designs to “support undo and redo” which today can also refer to giving users the ability to go back, perhaps without losing information they’ve already entered, and forward between screens, pages, forms and so on.
4. Consistency and Standards
The golden guideline here is to “follow platform conventions.” Don’t try to reinvent the wheel by attempting to innovate in areas where users are already confident and familiar with processes. Use language they’re familiar with and actions that are consistent with the platform you’re designing for.
5. Error Prevention
This is another one that can benefit from usability testing, particularly by watching where your test users stumble and make mistakes. The heuristic references how a good error message can improve the usability of an experience, but the trick is to create a “careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place.” It can be hard to know where these errors occur beforehand, which is why usability testing is so important.
Related: The Top 5 User Testing Methods
6. Recognition Rather than Recall
Don’t Make Me Think is a popular usability book written (and recently updated) by Steve Krug. Its whole premise is that users shouldn’t have to work hard to get the most out of an experience, which also happens to be what this heuristic is all about. A user’s path should be visible, including objects, actions and options. “The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another,” Nielsen wrote in this heuristic. This is where things like information architecture come into play, or when creating a form, for example, why it’s often imperative to have certain information transfer from one page to another.
“Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate,” the heuristic states.
Related: Understanding Working Memory
7. Flexibility and Efficiency of Use Accelerators
This heuristic is about seamlessly designing experiences that cater to users of all experience levels. These accelerators are essential invisible and “unseen by the novice user” but they are extremely valuable in designing tailored experiences to a variety of users accessing the same platform. It helps to speed up the interaction and to make the experience smoother for the user regardless of whether they’ve accessed that platform before or not.
8. Aesthetic and Minimalist Design
Minimalism is hotter than ever, but at its core it’s about containing only the information that is relevant to a user or an experience. It made our list of UX trend predictions in both 2016 and 2017 and the minimalist aesthetic is showing no signs of slowing down. These heuristics were written around the time sites like GeoCities and Angelfire were becoming popular. Remember all those flashy designs and animations? They betrayed this heuristic, but that was the trend at the time. We’ve returned to a level of design where we understand that “every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.” With so much competition for a user’s attention these days, this heuristic is once again critical.
9. Help Users Recognize, Diagnose, and Recover from Errors
In addition to preventing errors (heuristic number 5), it’s also important to guide users to recovering from errors. When they end up on the wrong page, forget to fill out a box in a form, miss a digit when entering their phone number, designers need to create plain language prompts to encourage users to amend their own mistakes by suggesting constructive solutions that do not detract from an overall experience.
10. Help and Documentation
This heuristic writes, “even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.”
This heuristic has evolved perhaps the most out of all of them. Beyond providing users with a set of how-tos when it comes to navigating an experience, installing a system and so on, today’s documentation also introduces the relevance of content strategies that enhance a user’s experience by providing valuable resources, social media and chatbots that allow users to ask questions live and on the go, and increased interaction between users and the creators of the interaction to enhance connection and communication. It’s also a reminder to follow patterns that users are already familiar with (heuristic number 4).
What do you think of the 10 heuristics and their application to UX design and UX strategies of today? Are these guidelines that you factor into your day-to-day? Would you add any heuristics to this list that maybe weren’t applicable 20+ years ago? We’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below.
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