One of the most cost effective ways to evaluate a site is to do a heuristic review. A heuristic review is a systematic evaluation where the site is examined by one or more evaluators against a checklist of usability principles known as heuristics. There are heuristic lists that are rather general and a bit vague, such as Molich and Nielsen’s list of ten heuristics, and there are very specific heuristic lists that I’ve been asked to use, such as an internal company list of over 100 check points. I’ve even heard stories of a list that is nearly 1,000 points long!

In the past two years or so I’ve done perhaps 45 heuristic reviews, comprising perhaps 900 pages of prose and screenshots. But are these really heuristic reviews?

In the early 1990’s, 3D stereograms were very popular. I would stare at a particular image, and all of a sudden the two-dimensional pattern would fade away to be replaced by a three-dimensional image. If I looked away for a moment, the 3D image would return to its original 2D state until I could get it back by staring again. Some 3D images emerged more quickly than others, but I always enjoyed these, and I actually still have a book of such images on my bookshelf.

To me, I find that webpages are like the 3D stereograms. I look at a page, and the problems bounce up; they become three-dimensional, and they challenge me to grab them in screenshots and in prose where I can capture them and suggest their removal.

I’m familiar with the heuristic lists, but I don’t use them when I do heuristic reviews. Rather, I write up what I see, often classifying problems into high, medium and low severity ratings, and if a client asks for me to reference a particular heuristic list, I will write up the review first, then go back to the list and find the most appropriate reference to each of the items that I had tagged.

So are they really heuristic reviews? Yes, but not quite in the way that my profession uses the term. The truth is the word “heuristic” originated from psychology as a mental shortcut that allows problem solving and quick decisions, even when all the facts are not laid out and thought through very carefully. In many cases, heuristics work without getting us bogged down and save us mental energy.

The heuristic reviews that I do work and are appreciated by clients. To some extent, I’ve been in the field long enough that those lists are in my head and part of the heuristic process, even if not quite as a formal list. The term “expert review” is often used interchangeably with “heuristic review” – also being applied to comparing a site against a list of usability heuristics. But maybe we can redefine “expert review” to indicate a review that is more heuristic in the psychological sense and doesn’t rely on a formal checklist.

Caveats (for clients and potential clients)

For the record, no matter what, one reviewer will never see all the potential problems, and having a second reviewer will almost always add a number of additional findings. After one additional reviewer, however, it’s a point of diminishing returns. I also know and admit that I will never be able to see things fully through the eyes of any user population to which I don’t belong. There will always be things that I learn in usability tests that I would have missed by doing a heuristic review independently.

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