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Heuristic evaluation was used by Jakob Nielsen in 1990 to describe a type of inspection method [5], for identifying usability problems of computer software

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Heuristic Evaluation

Stella Mills

Department of Computing & Multimedia

University of Gloucestershire

The Park


GL50  2QF, UK

e-mail:  smills@glos.ac.uk

Heuristic evaluation was used by Jakob Nielsen in 1990 to describe a type of inspection method [5], for identifying usability problems of computer software and, in particular, the user interface [4].  Heuristic evaluation is the most informal method of usability inspection methods and ‘involves having usability specialists judge whether each dialogue element conforms to established usability principles.  These principles are normally referred to as the heuristics …’ [1, p.5].   Alternatively, heuristic evaluation is a usability engineering method ‘for finding the usability problems in a user interface design so that they can be attended to as part of an iterative design process.  Heuristic evaluation involves having a small set of evaluators examine the interface and judge its compliance with recognized usability principles (the ”heuristics”)’ [4].  Usability engineering applies the principles of engineering to user interface design [6].

There is, therefore, no commonly accepted formal definition of an heuristic evaluation but essentially, a number of heuristics or principles are derived, usually from the literature, and then applied to the artifact to be evaluated, generally as a checklist.  Potential problems for users are identified and suggestions made for their solution.  The method does not involve the system’s users and is generally completed by at least one, but preferably up to five, human factors’ experts who should not have been involved in the development of the software.  The need for experts, but not system users per se, places heuristic evaluation within the ‘expert method’ category of general methods of research in the social sciences.

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vide infra) who also have expert application domain knowledge.

The number of evaluators can vary from one to as many as are available but it has been found that an upper limit of about five [4] brings an increase in the identification of problems when compared to costs.  If the evaluators are all double experts, then this number can be reduced and successful commercial evaluations have been achieved with only one evaluator.  It can be argued [4], that if the heuristics are derived by a double expert then they can be applied by any user.  However, this is fraught with problems of misinterpretation of the heuristics and the inability of the users to role-play other users; indeed, novice users usually cannot role-play expert users, although some experts can achieve some success with the method.

When the evaluators have finished the evaluating session and the first three columns of the checklist table are completed, it is usual to give some indication of the severity, from the corresponding user’s perspective, of the problems found.  If there is more than one evaluator, then the complete list of problems is circulated to all the evaluators who rank, from a usability perspective, all the problems found.  It is not always possible for the evaluator to indicate the costs involved or other factors since they have not been privy to the formal design process.  Nielsen [4] suggested a rating of 0 to 4 where 0 indicates there is no problem and 4 signals a usability catastrophe (Table 3).  These ratings can be used to indicate where the software needs better usability input and which specific problems need fixing as a matter of priority.

Table 3

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Heuristic evaluation is an inexpensive but efficient method of evaluating the interface of a software system and while it may not exhibit every usability problem of the system, it can be enlightening in terms of potential difficulties for different categories of user.  Commercially, it is cost effective and consequently is used in industry to provide feedback, often well before the software is released for testing.  While it is best achieved using ‘triple’ experts, it can be done by others since any reliable feedback is thought to be better than none.


1  Mack, R.L. and Nielsen, J., Executive summary, in Usability Inspection Methods, Nielsen, J. and Mack, R.L., Eds., John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York, 1994, chap 1.

2  Mills, S., Usability problems of acoustical fishing displays, Displays, 16, 115, 1995.

3  Mills, S., Integrating information - a task-orientated approach, Interacting with Computers, 9(3), 1998, 225-240.

4  Nielsen, J., Heuristic evaluation, in Usability Inspection Methods, Nielsen, J. and Mack, R.L., Eds., John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York, 1994, chap 2.

5  Preece, J., Rogers, Y. and Sharp, H, Interaction Design beyond human-computer interaction, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 2002.

6  Wixon, D., Jones, S., Tse, L. and Casaday, G., Inspections and design reviews:  framework, history and reflection, in Usability Inspection Methods, Nielsen, J. and Mack, R.L., Eds., John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York, 1994, chap 4.

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