Usability Guidelines for Heuristic Evaluation

27 12 2009

I have read quite a few blogs and articles on Heuristic Evaluation and learnt about the theory-based approach for performing it but failed to find detailed heuristics for evaluating a website. The Heuristics I have read so far are more on evaluating a system/web application than for a website. So this post walks through the process for conducting Heuristic Evaluation and lists various usability guidelines (heuristics) for evaluating a website.

Heuristic Evaluation is evaluating the website based on usability principles (heuristics) and identifying the major usability problems with the website as well as evaluating the things which need to be retained from the existing website. One very important point to note here (which is missed by most of us) is the output of the Heuristic Evaluation should also consist of features/things which should be retained from the existing website.  Heuristic Evaluation is a very important and necessary step, which should be conducted in the early stages of re-designing a website.

Heuristic Evaluation is best if performed by someone outside of the organization, to get a third person and a fresh perspective about the website. So it is necessary to conduct it before reviewing any of the existing materials to avoid any bias evaluations.

Process for conducting the Heuristic Evaluation (example is presented along with the steps)

Choose number of Evaluators

As per Jakob Nielsen’s study, it is difficult for one evaluator to point out all the usability problems. So he recommends, 3 to 5 evaluators can typically point out 80% – 90% of the usability problems. Although if you can’t arrange for more evaluators remember one evaluator is better than none!

Identify and define the goals of the website

For e.g.:

  • Educate people about Cancer Prevention and early detection
  • Users should find the information easily
  • Get people involved
  • Get more donations
  • Attract more sponsors and grant funders

Define a set of tasks to be performed on the website

Consider the above mentioned goals of the website and define the tasks that are critical to the site’s success. The tasks should be clear and precise.

For e.g.:

  • Navigate the website to find information about how to prevent cancer.
  • Look for information about upcoming events being organized.
  • Make a contribution to the organization (stop the process when they ask for card details).

Perform the tasks and evaluate the website

Perform the defined tasks on the website and based on the following Heuristics and usability guidelines evaluate the website (all the usability guidelines might not be relevant to your site).

Home Page Usability

  • The items on the homepage are clearly focused on user’s key tasks
  • Useful content is presented on the homepage or within one click of the homepage
  • All corporate information is grouped in one distinct area (e.g. “About Us”).
  • There is a short list of items recently featured on the homepage, supplemented with a link to archival content.
  • The value proposition is clearly stated on the home page
  • The home page looks like a home page; pages lower in the site will not be confused with it.
Task Orientation
  • The site avoids unnecessary registration.
  • The critical path (e.g. purchase, subscription) is clear, with no distractions on route.
  • The site correctly anticipates and prompts for the user’s probable next activity.
  • Users can complete common tasks quickly.
  • Items can be compared easily when this is necessary for the task (e.g. product comparisons).
  • The most important and frequently used topics, features and functions are close to the centre of the page, not in the far left or right margins.
  • Typing (e.g. during purchase) is kept to an absolute minimum, with accelerators (“one-click”) for return users.
  • When there are multiple steps in a task, the site displays all the steps that need to be completed and provides feedback on the user’s current position in the workflow.
  • On the basket page, there is a highly visible ‘Proceed to checkout’ button at the top and bottom of the page.
  • The site supports novice and expert users by providing different levels of explanation (e.g. in help and error messages).
Navigation & IA
  • There is a convenient and obvious way to move between related pages and sections and it is easy to return to the home page.
  • The information that users are most likely to need is easy to navigate to from most pages.
  • Navigation choices are ordered in the most logical or task-oriented manner.
  • The major sections of the site are available from every page (persistent navigation) and there are no dead ends.
  • There is a site map that provides an overview of the site’s content and it is linked from every page.
  • Good navigational feedback is provided (e.g. showing where you are in the site).
  • Category labels accurately describe the information in the category.
  • Links and navigation labels contain the “trigger words” that users will look for to achieve their goal.
  • Product pages contain links to similar and complementary products to support cross-selling.
  • There are clearly marked exits on every page allowing the user to bale out of the current task without having to go through an extended dialog.
Forms & Data Entry
  • Fields in data entry screens contain default values when appropriate and show the structure of the data and the field length.
  • Field labels on forms clearly explain what entries are desired.
  • There is a clear distinction between “required” and “optional” fields on forms.
  • Questions on forms are grouped logically, and each group has a heading.
  • Fields on forms contain hints, examples or model answers to demonstrate the expected input.
  • Pull-down menus, radio buttons and check boxes are used in preference to text entry fields on forms (i.e. text entry fields are not overused).
  • The site makes it easy to correct errors (e.g. when a form is incomplete, positioning the cursor at the location where correction is required).
Page Layout & Visual Design
  • On all pages, the most important information (such as frequently used topics, features and functions) is presented on the first screenful of information (“above the fold”).
  • The site can be used without scrolling horizontally.
  • Hypertext links are easy to identify (e.g. underlined) without needing to ‘minesweep’.
  • Each page on the site shares a consistent layout.
  • Pages on the site are formatted for printing, or there is a printer-friendly version.
  • The site has a consistent, clearly recognizable look and feel that will engage users.
Search Usability
  • The default search is intuitive to configure (no Boolean operators).
  • The search results page shows the user what was searched for and it is easy to edit and resubmit the search.
  • Search results are clear, useful and ranked by relevance.
  • The search results page makes it clear how many results were retrieved, and the number of results per page can be configured by the user.
  • If no results are returned, the system offers ideas or options for improving the query based on identifiable problems with the user’s input.
  • The most common queries (as reflected in the site log) produce useful results.
  • The search results page does not show duplicate results (either perceived duplicates or actual duplicates).
  • The search box is long enough to handle common query lengths.
  • Searches cover the entire web site, not a portion of it.
  • The search engine provides an option for similarity search (“more like this”).
  • The search engine provides automatic spell checking and looks for plurals and synonyms.
  • The search results page displays useful meta-information, such as the size of the document, the date that the document was created and the file type (Word, pdf etc.).
Writing & Content Quality
  • The site has compelling and unique content.
  • Pages use bulleted and numbered lists in preference to narrative text.
  • Information is organized hierarchically, from the general to the specific, and the organization is clear and logical.
  • Content has been specifically created for the web (web pages do not comprise repurposed material from print publications such as brochures).
  • Product pages contain the detail necessary to make a purchase, and users can zoom in on product images.
  • Hypertext has been appropriately used to structure content.
  • Pages are quick to scan, with ample headings and sub-headings and short paragraphs.
  • The site uses maps, diagrams, graphs, flow charts and other visuals in preference to wordy blocks of text.
  • Each page is clearly labeled with a descriptive and useful title that makes sense as a bookmark.
  • Links and link titles are descriptive and predictive, and there are no “Click here!” links.
  • Link names match the title of destination pages, so users will know when they have reached the intended page.
  • Button labels and link labels start with action words.
Trust & Credibility
  • The content is up-to-date, authoritative and trustworthy.
  • The site contains third-party support (e.g. citations, testimonials) to verify the accuracy of information.
  • The site avoids advertisements, especially pop-ups.
  • Each page is clearly branded so that the user knows he is still in the same site.
  • The content is fresh: it is updated frequently and the site includes recent content.
  • There are real people behind the organization and they are honest and trustworthy (look for bios).
Help, Feedback & Error Tolerance
  • The FAQ or on-line help provides step-by-step instructions to help users carry out the most important tasks.
  • It is easy to get help in the right form and at the right time.
  • The site does a good job of preventing the user from making errors.
  • The user does not need to consult user manuals or other external information to use the site.
  • The site uses a customized 404 page, which includes tips on how to find the missing page and links to “Home” and Search.
  • The site provides good feedback (e.g. progress indicators or messages) when needed (e.g. during checkout).
  • User confirmation is required before carrying out potentially “dangerous” actions (e.g. deleting something).
  • Error messages contain clear instructions on what to do next.
  • Error messages are written in a non-derisory tone and do not blame the user for the error.
  • Where tool tips are used, they provide useful additional help and do not simply duplicate text in the icon, link or field label.
  • Important instructions remain on the screen while needed, and there are no hasty time outs requiring the user to write down information.


Morville, P., & Rosenfeld, L. (2007). Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (3rd ed.). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Kalbach, J. (2007). Designing Web Navigation: Optimizing the User Experience (1sted.). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Neilsen, J., & Loranger, H. (2007). Prioritizing Web Usability. Berkeley CA: New Riders Press.

Travis, D. (2009). Web Usability Guidelines. USERFOCUS.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: