User Experience

Difference Between Heuristic Evaluation vs Usability Testing

Lomit Patel
June 30, 2022

As the famous saying goes, ‘first impression is the last impression’ – the world of mobile apps follows pretty much a similar model. With the ever-increasing competition in the app industry, if a user downloads and installs your app, the first impression of user experience and interface will be the deal breaker.

According to a study, if an app takes too long to load its content or if the images never load, 39% of users stop engaging with it. And 24% of mobile apps are used only once after they have been installed.

Now if we compare these two important mobile app stats, it gives a very clear picture of how competitive the market is today. As far as user experience (UX), user interface (UI) and user engagement is concerned, developers and designers can leave no stone unturned in ensuring the app meets the user’s expectations – frankly speaking, even surpass them.

Over the past few years, a number of methodologies and techniques have been introduced to test and measure the overall app experience – the most commonly used being heuristic evaluation and usability testing.

What is Heuristic Evaluation?

Back in the 1990s, famous web usability consultants and experts, Jakob Nielsen and his partner Rolf Molich came up with a list of ten interface design guidelines – commonly known as the ‘heuristics’. The reason they were labeled as heuristics is because these ten principles are rules of thumb and not specific to usability or any other variable.

In the simplest of definitions, a heuristic evaluation is a methodology to assess user interface elements through reviewing user interface against a certain checklist. In the context of mobile app, professional UX experts are the evaluators that look for inconsistencies in the UX of an app and all the various factors associated with it.

How to Adapt Heuristic Evaluation Principles to Mobile App

Keeping this model specific to mobile apps, how can developers, designers and product managers implement the ten heuristic principles on a mobile app? Let’s have a look:

  • System Status Transparency – the system is expected to keep its users informed about the ongoing status during a certain process. The status should be readable and understandable for the user.
  • Connection with the Real World – the system shall use the language of the real world so that a user can relate to the terminologies and imitations rather easily. For example, words such as files, folders, pages, buttons, etc. are real world terminologies that are used by the users.
  • Give Control and Freedom to the User – the system should give appropriate control and freedom to a user where he can go back from a step or undo/redo a certain action.
  • Consistency and Standards – the system should not go against conventional ideas and practices which the users are familiar with. For example, hyperlinks are highlighted in a different color with an underlined text, doing this in a different and rare way is something that might backfire.
  • Prevent the Error – system should be designed in a way that keeps the occurrence of an error to a minimum. Users should not be asked for suggestions or assistance to help solve an error.
  • Recognition Preferred over Recall – the system should be presenting its users the options to choose from rather than expecting them to remember or recall the best option at a certain step. It is much easier to choose from a given set of options instead of having to think of one.
  • System Flexibility and Efficiency – since all users are not expected to have the same intellect, expertise or experience, their behavioral traits will also be different. It is advised to customize your app sections or steps according to user skill level based on certain aspects such as age, region, interests, etc.
  • The Minimalistic Approach – system should keep its communication precise, relevant and to-the-point. Any extra information would have adverse effects on its relative visibility and value.
  • Allow Users to Recognize, Diagnose and Recover from Errors – since users are not expected to be coders or developers, the system should display error messages in the language of the real world. Moreover, users should know the next step once an error has been displayed to them.
  • Help and Documentation – although a system is expected to be user-friendly and easy to engage with, even then if a user wants to review any help text or documentation, it should be easily located and accessed by the user.

What is Usability Testing?

Jakob Nielsen defined usability testing as a methodology used in user-focused interaction design to assess a product by conducting tests on the users of that product.

Unlike the heuristic evaluation technique, where UX experts are the evaluators, here the user researchers are individuals with limited knowledge or expertise to gauge the performance of a mobile interface.

According to a study, 13% of users will tell 15 or more people about a bad experience. Another report found out that 32% of customers leave a brand they were loyal to, only after one bad experience.

How to Adapt Usability Testing to App and Mobile

Being a developer, SQA resource or an app manager, if you are looking to conduct a usability test on your mobile app, you just have to follow these simple steps:

  • Define Your Objectives – the roadmap, target audience, forecasting, project estimation, etc. needs to be clearly communicated with all members of your development team.
  • Organize Your Tasks – test scenarios and tasks need to be well thought out. They need to be realistic, easy to understand, follow a set sequence or a pattern and linked with each other.
  • Create Test Documentation – post-test questionnaires and forms need to be created in order to collect information once the test has ended.
  • Choose the Participants – since this is a user-oriented approach, involving your real-time users would be the key to the overall findings.
  • Conduct the Usability Test – you can do this either remotely or in laboratory conditions.

Difference between Heuristic Evaluation and Usability Testing

Now that we know what heuristic evaluation and usability testing is all about, let us have a look at the key differences of these two techniques:

Heuristic Evaluation

  • Conducted by UX experts with relevant skills
  • Checklist is provided and evaluators stick to those guidelines
  • Evaluators test the whole system in a holistic manner
  • Assess potential issues

Usability Testing

  • Conducted by non-professional users belonging to all walks of life and with limited knowledge and experience.
  • Specific tasks that are to be performed by the users
  • Testers test the system with ‘screen-by-screen’ approach
  • Assess real issues

One of the key differences between these two models is the fact that heuristic evaluators are not the actual target users. There might be variations in an evaluator’s results and the actual experiences of a real-time user of an app.

However, on the other side, since there is a standardized heuristic checklist, the UX experts give the app a thorough test and are able to observe inconsistencies that a user might overlook – for example, the color of the button of the app, border layout, etc.

When Should You Use these Methods?

In order to keep things on the right course from day one, it is highly advised that heuristic evaluations and usability tests should be done sooner rather than later. After each design stage, heuristic assessment can be carried out in order to remove the flaws and errors – and this, eventually, will assist usability testing in a better way as the final version that the user sees will be a refined and improved app already.

It is imperative to note that delaying these evaluation and assessment models will only add to your overall project costs.

The above graph clearly shows that the more you delay a certain change in your overall design or architecture of the whole system, the higher will be the costs that you will have to incur. Another factor to note here is that the highest cost incurred was at the ‘post-development’ stage, which means an app went live and then it was redesigned or re-coded once the anomalies were observed.

Heuristic Evaluations Vs Usability Testing – In a Nutshell

Heuristic evaluation and usability testing models are the most widely used techniques in the world of mobile apps. This is because they are able to identify UX and UI flaws in a mobile app before it ever reaches its target user.

The inconsistencies that these mechanisms are able to detect will have serious impacts on your user engagement metrics such as retention rate, churn rate, adoption rate, etc. Also, since the findings from these models will assist you in revisiting and fixing your app’s design flaws at a relatively earlier stage, the overall cost of your app development will go significantly down.

About the Author: Lomit Patel

Lomit Patel is the Vice President of Growth at IMVU. Prior to IMVU, Lomit managed growth at early-stage startups including Roku (IPO), TrustedID (acquired by Equifax), Texture (acquired. by Apple) and EarthLink. Lomit is a public speaker, author, advisor, and recognized as a Mobile Hero by Liftoff. Lomit’s new bestselling book Lean AI, is part of Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup” series, now available at Amazon.

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