Episode 001: Heuristic Evaluations: What and Why?

Hosted by:
With guest: Rebecca Grazzini
February 10, 2017

Mahtab   Welcome to our very first episode of The Crux of It. Little known fact, we actually tried to record this a while back, except we had our levels set so poorly I sounded like a 400-pound man with emphysema. We're trying it again. I'm Mahtab Rezai. I'm the principal and CEO of Crux Collaborative. We're a user experience consulting firm specializing in regulated industries. Today we're going to be talking about heuristic evaluations. I'm joined by my coworker, Rebecca Grazzini, who's a senior consultant and user experience designer.
Rebecca   Hello.
Mahtab   Hello. Are you ready to talk heuristics?
Rebecca   Yeah, I am. I am.
Mahtab   It's very exciting. I'm really actually excited to talk about these with you because not a lot of people know about them, and they're actually a really powerful tool that can help leapfrog an organization in improving their user experiences. They're fast. They're relatively inexpensive. When they're used before a usability study, they can increase the research insights you gain tenfold. I feel like, you know how the first shampoo doesn't really foam up, and then the second shampoo is so effective? They act like a first shampoo.
Rebecca   It's the rinse and repeat.
Mahtab   Before research. Absolutely. Yet, very few people know about them and their benefits. Before we get too far into the details, we should actually probably take a step back and define them. Rebecca, you want to talk about what a heuristic is?
Rebecca   Absolutely. Basically a heuristic evaluation is an expert review of a website that helps identify a few key things. First off, whether or not the website actually is following standard best practices. There are certain heuristics, you can find them on the web, that you can just walk through a website. Does it use links, indicators, buttons, things like that, effectively? Then, what are some easy fixes throughout the site? Some of the things that we find typically are we can find really easy fixes just by looking at a website quickly. Third, how well does the website accomplish the goals that the business has set out? If it's designed to increase sales, to ensure that people choose a health plan that's right for them, how well does it do that job and help the user make sure they get where they need to be? Then, finally, what is really, really going wrong? Often when somebody comes to us and we do one of these things, it's really about, "Oh, this is really failing and a critical issue that needs to be fixed."
Mahtab   Let's talk a little bit about the process. That's a little bit of what it is, but what does it look like to do one of these with us?
Rebecca   First thing that we do is we meet with the client team and we go through and get an understanding of what is the website, what are their goals, what do they want the website to do, and what kinds of things are they looking ... What is the reason that they're talking to us in the first place? What are the things that they're trying to improve and fix?
Mahtab   Also I think an important piece in there is a lot of times they're also talking to us because of some business or political reason within the business that there's an issue where two key stakeholders are having a disagreement.
Rebecca   Right.
Mahtab   Or no one can understand why something that should be obvious and easy isn't working. They're looking oftentimes for a quicker answer than they might have with a formal research study.
Rebecca   The second thing that we do after we meet with the client team is we come back to Crux and we collaborate as a team. We will sit down as a group and look at a website together. Often on that team we have someone from user experience, we have someone who is in design, and we have someone who is in technology so that we're all bringing our own perspectives to the website and evaluating it from those standpoints. We're seeing if there are technical challenges that could be optimized, if there are design items that could be fixed, and then user experience, things that we can improve on. Then we will get together after we have our evaluation. We'll look at what are the themes that we came up with and document our findings and recommendations, and then bring that back and present it to our client team.
Mahtab   Awesome. Then I think one of the things that's really interesting when we do that as well is, honestly, in about 75 percent of the heuristic reports that we're delivering, I will hear the phrase, "This is like therapy." Because it's always I think too they've known that something is wrong or these are the issues that they've seen. Just to have somebody else validate it and give some language to it, sometimes they know that it is wrong but they can't identify what. Just the clarity that it brings client teams. I'm always laughing when we get that response.
Rebecca   Exactly.
Mahtab   "This is so therapeutic."
Rebecca   Or there's that one person on the client team that has known this was a problem and feels like they're not being listened to, and they're so vindicated when they get this report.
Mahtab   Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. How long do these take?
Rebecca   These take about only one to two weeks. They're really quick. That's the great thing about them for a lot of client teams, is they can get this information and this feedback really quickly and take some action right away without waiting for six weeks, months in some cases, depending on who you're working with, for other kinds of research.
Mahtab   That's a really good point. Why would an organization ... We talked about some of these, but why would an organization choose a heuristic? We said speed.
Rebecca   Speed is definitely one. Also, sometimes clients just don't know where to begin. It's a good starting point to just get a base of, "Okay. What's going on on the website? What do we think we want to dig into deeper?" Either through metrics and analytics, through other direct research, there are a lot of different ways that we can then decide how we tackle certain website problems.
Mahtab   I also think another one is internally in organizations, some organizations have cultures where outside expertise is really respected and listened to. Sometimes they need an outside expert to be articulating some of these things. Even in some of the language which we use or the way we're able to bring context, we're able to reference how the vertical does it and best practices within the vertical. I think that's another reason why people come to us specifically for heuristics, is that they're looking for, "Okay. We know we have an issue with this. Either this is a new offering for us within this space or we feel like we're lagging in this area. Help us understand in the context of our vertical and in the context of regulated industries what's wrong here."
Rebecca   Right.
Mahtab   Even if you don't have a heuristic evaluation performed, you can benefit from the hundreds that we've done. We're actually going to talk about five things that we find a lot of the time and that you can take a look at about your site or application and fix if you need to. It'll be like you get a free heuristic.
Rebecca   There you go.
Mahtab   Let's talk about the first thing.
Rebecca   First thing, and this is one that I did not realize myself as a UX practitioner until I did a lot of research, you need a home button. A lot of people think that people know to click on the logo to get back to the homepage. They do not. If you put a home icon, that could be misread. The word "home" is the best way to get people back to your homepage. Similarly, if you're using on mobile navigation the three bars, which we call the hamburger menu, people don't know what that is. We do, who work in tech, but most people actually really don't, so the word "menu" is a much more effective mechanism there.
Mahtab   Awesome. Another one is colors and links. This is so basic, but if you're using a color for a link and people learn, "Oh, if I click on this thing it goes somewhere," then what happens is when you don't use that color only for links and you start using it all over the place, people are starting to click on all the other things with that same color. One really simple and basic thing you can do to improve usability is pick a color that's the link color, and just reserve that for links.
Rebecca   Absolutely.
Mahtab   People always talk about the scroll, how the scroll is not a real thing. Except if you have a false bottom on the page. If it looks like the user has reached the end of the page, if every visual indicator is telling them there's no more here, they're actually not going to scroll. I think one of the things when people say, "People scroll. They scroll." Yes, they scroll if the thing that they're reading looks like it goes down further beyond the area they're looking at. But if it looks like it's over and there's nothing more below, they have no reason to scroll. I think that's a really important thing. When you're evaluating your site, take a look at the visual design. Are you using blocks of color that create these false page bottoms that people aren't going to move past?
Rebecca   Then, also, error messaging. Is it clear that your error messaging is helping your users solve the mistake that they've made?
Mahtab   Or is it clear that there is an error message?
Rebecca   And what the error is. Often, because it's easier, error messaging will appear at the top of a form and reference some field way down on the list. Where it's much more effective to have inline error messaging in those situations. Just making sure that your error messaging language is also effective and human.
Mahtab   Yes. Making it human is really important. Those are five easy things that you can actually take a look at, but five things that we find I would say at least 100 percent of the time we'll find one of those five in a heuristic evaluation. Make our work more interesting. Solve those before we get there! I think we have covered everything we had to say about heuristics. If there's something that we missed, or if you have any questions or disagree, feel free to drop us an e-mail. Our e-mail addresses are on Also, thanks for sticking with us and listening to our first podcast. If you like what you heard, you can find us on SoundCloud, on iTunes, also on our website, Bye.
Rebecca   Bye.


Hosted by: Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO

Mahtab has spent nearly two decades as a user experience designer, researcher, strategist, leader, and mentor. She has designed user experiences for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 50.


With guest: Rebecca Grazzini
Senior User Experience Specialist

Rebecca has worked on user experiences in a variety of industries including online education, health care, financial services, tourism, energy, and agriculture. She has spent much of her career developing complex transactional experiences under strict regulatory constraints.
View Rebecca’s Bio


Let us know your name and email address and we’ll send you our newsletter.

First Name

Last Name

Email Address



Thank you!