Part 1: What is Usability? Introducing Heuristic Analysis

What is Usability? Introducing the Usability Audit

Hi y’all! My name is Amelia Abreu, and I’m a design researcher and the founder of UX Night School. I’m so excited to get started with UX Night School’s Tutorial series for Balsamiq! We’ll be working alongside UX Night School’s first online course, Intro to UX Design/Research, and I’m so excited to have you join us.

“What is User Experience, exactly?”

“What do you mean by Design Research?”

I get these questions a lot. After all, naming things is one of the hardest problems in computing, and the concepts that inform UX and design research are complex! These pithy terms don’t really do a great job of encompassing them.

But this brings up a bigger issue - that human-centered design is best introduced in practice. Learning the concepts is one thing, but applying them is much harder, and much more important.

Introducing: Heuristic Analysis (or a Usability Audit)

In the spring of 1990, two Computer Science professors from Denmark named Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich presented a paper at the CHI Conference. That is, the Academy of Computing Machinery’s SIG (Special Interest Group) on Computer Human Interaction (often referred to as “Chi”, and pronounced like the greek letter). In it they proposed a heuristic analysis technique for User Interfaces. In short, a technique that they proposed as a credible one for evaluating the usability of interfaces in computing, and ostensibly finding areas to improve and better understand.

What exactly does that mean? They called this a heuristic analysis, they argued, because it could be performed “by simply looking at the interface and passing judgement according to one’s own opinion.” While most of us can see how this might be possible, keep in mind that this initial audience was a group of industry and academic researchers who tend to downplay individual human insight in favor of data collected by more mechanical means. Yet, as humans, we have a sort of capacity that machines don’t - to enact scenarios in context, to have differing ideas, and, most importantly, to reason and feel on a level that machines cannot.

Many of us have worked in jobs alongside folks who put a lot of emphasis on quantitative data, like indicators and metrics, performance data, but who also routinely make decisions based on inconsistent data or “their gut”. Design researchers like to argue that in representing experiences and data visually and through a variety of approaches, we’re better able to have accountability for decisions in product design.

In the following UX Night School posts for Balsamiq, we’ll talk about ways to do this that involve testing and validating design decisions with the end-users of a product. But, in this tutorial, we’ll cover how to conduct a heuristic analysis, or what I’ll less pedantically call a “Usability Audit”, all by yourself. Who would think that something written about the design of digital products in 1990 could still be useful and precise in 2018? This exercise remains more effective and efficient than ever.

You don’t need your boss’s permission (though I always think you should tell your boss when you are learning new things!), a budget, a lab, or any specific expertise. Just an hour and a product (or application, or website) that you’d like to improve.

Is this a bulletproof way to make an application or product completely useable? Nope. But it is a way to get started, which is often the hardest part in improving the user experience of an existing product. You could conduct the usability audit, then present it to your team as a way to propose a more in-depth project, like a series of Usability Tests or User Interviews. If you do client work as a designer or developer, you can perform the audit and offer this as a way to get conversations started.

Pro Tip: Don’t call it a teardown

There is one thing I’d ask you not to do: call this a “teardown”.

I hate the term “teardown”, and I’m made uncomfortable by its use in design practice. I do not enjoy tearing others down, and even the clunkiest user experience was built by other humans, who were most likely doing the best that they could. There is no one way to easily and quickly improve the user experience of a product, and I am suspicious of all who tell me otherwise (and that they alone are the ones to do it.)  Rather, as the rather staggering amount of data from both industry and academia shows - taking a human-centered approach to design and development and bringing people into the process yields the highest rate of success in improving usability, and in yielding a return on investment.

The way we adapt and maintain structures and technologies in everyday life is as interesting and valuable as the way we build them — this is core to my beliefs as a designer, researcher, and observer of technology and humanity.  Let’s do this in a way that is kind to everyone involved.

What I like most about doing a Usability Audit is that regardless of your background, you become the usability expert, with help from this list of criteria, or as they call them, heuristics.

Nielsen’s criteria give you a vocabulary and a place to start. From here, you can identify some next steps for improving usability.

While originally intended to be an exercise done individually with group analysis following, I’ve found that doing this in pairs is often very helpful. Much like pair programming, doing this audit with another person makes you have to think out loud, testing your assumptions.

To get started you’ll need a few things. First, as I mentioned before, about an hour of your time, and a website, app, or other product that you’d personally like to improve the usability of. It can be your company’s website, your bank’s smartphone app, or anything else you’ve used, thought about, or been annoyed by.

Finally, you’ll want to take a look at the criteria itself - here is a PDF download we designed at UX Night School, along with the original paper and Nielsen’s write-up on the Nielsen Norman Group site.

And last, if you aren’t already using Balsamiq on Google Drive, take a look at the documentation and get set up.

Next: I’ll walk you through the process.