A websites design is more than just how it looks. Finding and correcting design weaknesses can take an average website to amazing. Heuristic analysis is an excellent way to get started on finding those weaknesses, fast.
The heuristic approach to evaluating websites involves comparing your website interface design and functions against good practice principles. It is differentiated from general usability testing since the assessors using these principles as their assessment criteria, and not necessarily the end-users of a system. This process can be useful when you need a quick, measurable website ‘health check’. The ‘measurable’ part of this is critical, as it enables a quick, clear way to rank a website’s strengths and weaknesses.
One way to gather data for a heuristic analysis is to conduct a cognitive walkthrough of your website. This is where an expert assessor, or group of assessors, will attempt to perform a collection of critical tasks or tests on the site.
Tasks you may consider critical for assessment include:
- Creating a new user account.
- Booking a service or new enquiry.
- Submitting an event registration through a web form.
- Searching for a product or filtering items in a news list.
- Logging into a user account to update contact details or updating a purchase.
These tasks should be broken down into every action a website visitor will need to perform to successfully achieve their outcome. At each step, assessors should consider how well the website supports the user in progressing, along with scoring the relevant design elements. If you’re not sure where to start in creating the list of tasks to include as part of the heuristic analysis, here are some places to start:
- Define your user types – Who are you going to have test your site and what goals they are trying to achieve? Think about why they are vising the website and what are they trying to find.
- Use a sitemap to find your key activity areas – If you don’t already have a sitemap, create one that outlines each section of your website, and flag any sections with unique pieces of functionality or key user action points.
- Look at your website analytics software to discover how visitors are viewing your site – Assessors will want to test the site’s function, readability and appearance across the most common web browsers and devices used to access it.
How to score your website design elements
Below you can find one common scoring method, where individual website features are given a rating out of 5. The scores for each feature in a particular category (such as ‘Homepage features’) are then averaged to provide a qualitative rating for that category.
Of course, you can use ratings other than ‘Very Poor’ to ‘Excellent’. Depending on the preference of the assessor, these ratings could be represented by a number of stars, or a frown emoji to a smiling emoji – as long as each rating is associated with a score.
Website design elements & categories to score
It is important to group together website interface elements. We’ve provided some suggested groupings below, along with questions for assessors to ask while determining their scores. Providing all assessors with these questions helps to formalise the review process, as well as being a handy checklist.
- Features & functionality – Are users with different levels of expertise catered for? Are prompts for the user to purchase, sign-up etc. clear and consistent? Are shortcuts to common tasks readily available?
- Homepage – Is the homepage clear and uncluttered, with each section easy to identify? Does the page make the website’s purpose clear? Are all the most important actions a visitor can take easily accessible from the homepage?
- Navigation – Is navigation consistent? Are naming conventions for pages and content categories clear? Can a user easily tell where they are on the website? How flexible are the content finding pathways?
- Search – Are search results consistent? Does the search interface lend itself to assisting users complete critical tasks? Are common abbreviations, misspellings and topics addressed? Are results easy to browse?
- User control – Do users receive prompt and easy to understand feedback when they take an action? Is it easy to go back or undo an action? Do the interfaces inspire trust? How do they feel to use?
- Web forms – Are complex forms broken up into sections and steps? Are sign-up forms short, simple, and do they inspire trust? Are required fields marked? Are instructions available?
- Errors – Are error messages clear, easy to see and do they appear in appropriate places? Are they written in concise, plain language? Are errors easy for the user to recover from and pick up their task where they left off?
- Content & text – Is language, terminology and tone used appropriately and consistently? Is content legible and easy to scan? Do users have enough information to complete their tasks with little foreknowledge?
- Help – Is online help provided, and is it suited to the needs of the target user base? Are help articles easy to read, watch or listen to? Can users get further help when necessary?
- Performance – Do page loading times negatively impact task completion? Are there long delays between a website visitor taking an action and seeing it reflected on the site? Does the site function across a broad variety of web browsers and platforms?
- Browser & device compatibility – Is the site readable and functional across a variety of devices and web browsers?
Things to remember with your on-going website development
A heuristic analysis will generate ratings and insightful feedback for your website you can then use to plan out and monitor future improvements. It also provides a way to compare your website to your competitors’. However, ideally an analysis like this is just the beginning of a much larger plan of general usability testing with regular site users. On its own, a heuristic analysis can still miss important issues, and they rely heavily on the expertise of the assessor.
We are happy to work with you to help identify your website’s strengths and weaknesses. Let us know where you are with your own website assessment, and we will go the extra-mile to help you start improving your site for both your clients and your business.