Conducting a Heuristic Evaluation: What It Is and Why You Need One
by Patrick McGovern - April 30, 2020 - 4 minute read
Recently, I sat down with Joe Gajewski, the Experience Design Supervisor at Ascedia to discuss conducting a heuristic evaluation.
While the term has been around for a number of years, there’s still a great deal of confusion around what it is and, more importantly, why companies need it.
So let’s pull back the curtain on conducting a Heuristic evaluation.
Pat: Thanks for your time, Joe. So, what exactly is a heuristic evaluation?
Joe: The short version is that a Heuristic audit or evaluation is a method for uncovering usability problems. Going a bit deeper, in today’s world usability is a key factor in determining whether or not customers can effectively and efficiently engage with a website. It’s all about customer service. A site should meet and exceed customer’s needs and expectations. Poor usability is a killer to any business and a heuristic evaluation highlights problem areas.
Conducting this kind of evaluation requires someone with experience and expertise in evaluating a site against a set of defined principles. We have a checklist download on our site that will give you an idea of the principles I look at when I’m performing an evaluation.
Pat: What information do you need before starting a website audit?
Joe: To be as effective as possible, I need to understand the business requirements and key performance indicators (KPIs) of the site. Sometimes that is easy to gather…but clients often struggle with this. Additionally, I like to understand as much as I can about the end-user before diving in. Buyer personas and customer journey maps are helpful, but they aren't critical to have before I start.
Next, I like to establish the parameters around my evaluation. This is especially important with larger sites. Some sites have pages that number in the thousands -- there are so many that it becomes a drain on a client’s budget. Not to mention it takes a lot more time. Instead of trying to go through every page, I like to focus on the core pages of a site - the ones that are most important for the user.
Pat: Ok, that covers what it is. Can you explain why a business should have a heuristic evaluation done on its website?
Joe: It’s all about creating a solid customer experience, and a heuristic evaluation helps achieve this. Going through this exercise pinpoints exactly where any issues are taking place. For example, let’s say we are selling graphic t-shirts on our site. Website traffic is high, but sales have been low. An evaluation will help identity the road block - maybe the customers can't easily find the product they're looking for, or maybe they are having a hard time checking out. There could be a number of different reasons, and going through an audit will help shine a light on these problems. Once any existing issues have been identified and fixed, the site is going to provide a far better experience, and a better experience leads to more engagement, more repeat visits, more sales, etc.
Pat: Why go the website audit route? Are there other options out there?
Joe: That’s a great question and one we get a lot. The other option many are familiar with is user testing – which is also very helpful. There are two reasons I favor the heuristic route. For starters, it’s faster. To go back to my example, if your t-shirts aren't selling you don’t have a lot of time to figure out why. You need to get in, identify the issue and find a solution. A heuristic evaluation is perfect for quickly targeting these types of problem areas.
Two, heuristic evaluations are more affordable. User testing is a great tool, but it requires much more time, human resources, and there are more layers and steps you need to go through in order to get the most out of it. User testing is very helpful and effective, so I don’t want to paint it in a negative light. If budget and timing are not pressing, then it’s definitely worth considering.
A bit of a side note -- I would like to add that it’s important for organizations to view audits and testing as ongoing initiatives rather than as one-time projects. Just like your car, you should plan on regular, scheduled maintenance.
Pat: Great! Thank you, Joe. Do you have any final thoughts?
Joe: Throughout recent months we have seen how important websites have become. They are our lifeline to the outside world. And given this, the ability to engage online effectively and efficiently are going to be much more important going forward. Pre-COVID-19, many businesses talked about the importance of their site in their marketing mix. Our current situation highlights just how critical your site is when connecting to your customers. Going forward, those that understand the importance of their website, especially in a mobile format, and make the needed investment are going to be much better off.