A Tale of Heuristic Impact

UX Uncensored
4 min readJun 10, 2023

by Darren Hood, MSUXD, MSIME

Introduction

What do you think of when you hear the word “heuristics?” For many, the first thing that comes to mind is the famous illustration created by Jakob Nielsen (updated version shown, below). Those with a zeal for or interest in heuristics, respecting the author, embrace these principles and (off to the races) seek to apply them to their work.

Jakob Nielsen’s heuristics

There are, however, some critical oversights:

  • Though people might seek to use Nielsen’s principles, many who embrace them still don’t understand heuristics (e.g., proven principles, best practices, and common conventions). They are NOT opinion-based or centered.
  • This is only one of SEVERAL heuristic models UXers should be considering.
  • They are more powerful than what many expect or believe.

I think we’ve laid a good foundation. Let’s move on to a story that will provide an example of the potential impact of heuristics.

The Story

There was a company whose business depended predominantly on its e-commerce activities. In other words, their success depended upon sales from its website — sales that had been dwindling, especially as it pertained to one specific product offering. The team discovered that one customizable product offering had been experiencing high levels of abandonment during the purchasing process. The team didn’t understand why and began searching for answers. On their own, they found none!

One day, the team decided to reach out to UX and tell their story. Upon becoming informed about the context, UX commenced their investigation with the goal of returning in a few days with a presentation and recommendations.

UX Strategy

UX is not one thing. UX is basically a catch-all acronym that refers to several methods, methodologies, techniques, and deliverables. It is the job of the (true) UX professional to assess situations presented and decide which parts of the UX toolbox would best serve providing value in a given scenario.

For this project, the UX operatives used the following approaches:

  • Task analysis
  • Heuristic analysis
Abby Covert’s heuristics
Abby Covert’s heuristic model. It says “Information Architecture Heuristics,” but that’s an understatement. It’s applicable to much, much more.

In just two days, after combining the aforementioned two methods, the UX contingent made a wonderful discovery. The problems associated with the abandonment was quite clear. The findings from the heuristic analysis were presented to the stakeholders. The UXers were able to identify problematic issues associated with cognitive load and a lack of clarity with the information architecture. Providing more feedback during the process, changing the labels, making calls-to-action more prominent, and improving the customization process resolved the issues-at-hand.

Each of the fixes was identified through the use and application of heuristics—ALONE!!!

Based on the scenario (and yes, it’s a true story), failing to approach the UXers would have resulted in the following:

  • The problems on the page would have continued to exist.
  • Sales would have continued to plummet.
  • A slew of meetings featuring a mountain of stakeholder assumptions would have been held.
  • Some stakeholders would not have experienced the value presented by a skilled UX group.

Conclusion

The stakeholders were absolutely delighted to learn about the discovery. They implemented the recommendations immediately. The abandonment issues were eliminated and sales began to rise. Problem resolved!!!

What’s most critical to note with this brief story is that the resolution was attended to without using any formal research approaches. The UXers didn’t conduct any guerilla testing. They didn’t conduct any remote usability testing. They didn’t conduct any surveys. They didn’t install any code that allowed them to observe sessions with users. The problems with the site were resolved solely via the use of heuristics!!!

This brief story should help encourage people to embrace heuristics AND demonstrate its power. The issue with the site was resolved quickly and without unnecessarily using any additional resources. Likewise, heuristics can be used to impact practically any design project.

The operative question is…. how heuristically mature are you? ;-)

About Darren

Darren Hood is a 27+ year UX practitioner with a broad professional footprint that spans several types of business. He serves as an adjunct professor at Kent State University (Kent, Ohio), Lawrence Tech University (Southfield, Michigan), Brandeis University (Waltham, Massachusetts), UCLA (Los Angeles, California), and Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan). He is also one of the authors featured in “97 Things Every UX Practitioner Should Know.”

You can hear more from the Darren by checking out the UX Uncensored Medium page, listening to The World of UX with Darren Hood wherever podcasts are available, or via the UX Uncensored YouTube channel.

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UX Uncensored

Darren Hood: UX pro (27+ yrs), adjunct professor, TEDx and conference speaker, author (97 Things UX book), host of The World of UX podcast, & “pure UX” advocate