Heuristics — Going Back to the Future
In the mid-1990s, the discipline now known as user experience (UX) began to take center stage in the world of business. It helped save us from the dot-com bust. It birthed almost an entirely new breadth of career opportunities. It even helped achieve a paradigm shift in the way we live.
Fast forward to 2023 and we find another drastic shift. A discipline that was once maturing and evolving in a healthy, stable, and clear path has had its foundation shaken and is fallen on hard times. Here’s a quick look at what occurred:
- Research by IBM and NASA revealed that every $1 invested in UX could result in a return up to $250.
- More corporations shifted from being dependent upon creative agencies for UX support and began hiring in-house staff.
- The publishing of several articles touting UX as a top career of the future occurred, triggering the “UX gold rush.”
- This resulted in a shortage of qualified people to fill the roles.
- In hopes of providing a reliable educational resource to help fill the roles, UX bootcamps launched.
- UX generalist roles were being shunned in favor of specialists. BTW, practically everyone was a generalist prior to 2011. I’ll cover that another time.
- Being desirous of landing a UX role, many people began falsifying their qualifications and credentials.
- Many unqualified people were hired or appointed to UX leadership roles.
- The rise of the “give them a chance” philosophy also led to many people landing UX roles without being qualified OR having a genuine passion for the discipline.
This hodgepodge of events resulted in another major shift in UX’s history. As many people sought to enter the discipline and many non-UXers led in-house teams, in parallel with people not being qualified, the proper tenets of UX were overlooked.
Since 2011, information architecture and content strategy began to give way to UX writing. True UX design began being displaced by product design. Up became down, right became left, north became south, cold became hot. You get the picture.
Today, we’re starting to hear stories where companies are shifting back to hiring UX generalists. Leadership at many organizations has begun recognizing the lack of value brought by its UX teams. Information architecture and content strategy have found their way back onto the radars of budding (and even some seasoned) practitioners…. which leads us back to the focal point of this blog post.
Yet another grossly overlooked part of UX is gaining recognition and renewed importance. I’ve started noticing an increasing number of people whose curiosity has been stoked regarding HEURISTICS. You know:
- Best practices
- Common conventions
- Proven principles and
- Reliable standards
I’ve spoken on this topic in the past, referring to it as “the holy grail of UX,” the “UXers super power,” and the first resource out of any UXers toolbox.
Why do I refer to it in this manner? It can be used from a formative AND a summative perspective. In other words, heuristics can be used to inform designs, as well as evaluating work prior to deploying. (True) Heuristics can be used when you don’t have time for full-blown research. Heuristics can truly do what many other UX methods and techniques cannot.
In an effort to keep things as brief as possible, I’ll conclude by sharing a list of references on the topic of heuristics. For those seeking to learn more about heuristics, this will help you get started:
- 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design by Jakob Nielsen
This is the most common heuristic resource among UXers (and has been for quite some time).
- Designing for People by Henry Dreyfuss
Written by a leader in the world of industrial design, this classic and obscure book provides insights about what it takes to truly delight users.
- Heuristic Analysis for UX: How to Run a Usability Evaluation by Miklos Philips
This basic article provides a high-level view on how to perform a heuristic analysis.
- Pervasive Information Architecture: Designing Cross-Channel User Experiences by Andrea Resmini & Luca Rosati
This book includes a chapter dedicated to how heuristics can be used to optimize information architecture.
- Usability Engineering by Jakob Nielsen
This classic by Nielsen provides guidelines about optimal interface design and provides tremendous heuristic insights about such things as cognitive load, consistency, error messages, and tons of other bonuses, such as usability testing.
- User Experience Heuristics — Practical Approaches by John Hutchins
This excellent (and more modern) work combines information from Forrester and the work from Abby Covert and The Understanding Group. Very insightful.
- What’s the difference between a Heuristic Evaluation and a Cognitive Walkthrough? by Jeff Sauro
- 20 usability guidelines by Susan Weinschenk and Dean Barker
This is a basic list, but provides guidelines to aid in your heuristic efforts.
- Information Architecture Heuristics by Abby Covert
I saved the best for last. Not only does Abby Covert present the most practical and designer-friendly heuristic resource (in my professional opinion), but it includes several guidelines to aid with the critical thinking process (in the form of questions you can ask yourself or your team). BTW, don’t be misled by the title of the poster. While it’s entitled “Information Architecture Heuristics,” the contents are not limited to IA application. You can purchase the updated version of Abby’s poster here.
Here are some takeaways on the subject:
- Heuristics consist of proven principles, best practices, and common convention (combined), making them dependable and trustworthy.
- If a recommendation isn’t proven, it does NOT qualify as a heuristic.
- Application of heuristics safeguards design efforts from influence of bias, politics, and self-directed design.
- Depending upon the amount and expertise of the reviewers, heuristics can be used to find 70–90% of issues in a design.
- Heuristic evaluations can be completed in less time than usability testing.
- Supplementing heuristic analysis with user testing, if and when possible, is the recommended approach.
- Applying heuristics BEFORE designing testing is an economic strategy (helps test what’s needed).
- Heuristics don’t eliminate the need for research, but it can be used to minimized scope.
- Combine heuristics with scenario-based assessments for optimized practicality.
- While heuristic principles can be applied by anyone, engagement with an expert yields the greatest return on investment. The greater the “heuristic repository,” the greater the ability to identify problems.
Again, these resources can help launch one’s heuristics journey. If you’re committed to success (for yourself AND the discipline), if you haven’t already, I highly recommending “going back to the future” by embracing heuristics. In going back to the future (i.e., embracing the original tenets of UX), we’ll help foster greater success for the discipline.
Your users, your team, your organization, and your career will all thank you.
Addendum: You can hear me talk about this topic on The World of UX podcast.
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), and UCLA (Los Angeles, California). 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.