Chris Barklem

Examples of the heuristics of usability in practice

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The 10 heuristics of usability is a best practice presented by Jakob Niesen in his article: 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design. He lays down a set of 10 rules of thumb which can be applied designed into the user experience, to help the user in their interaction with any digital product.

The 10 heuristics are:

  • Visibility of system status
  • Match between system and the real world
  • User control and freedom
  • Consistency and standards
  • Error prevention
  • Recognition rather than recall
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
  • Help and documentation

Since Jakob Niesen introduced his ideas in 1995, there have been many attempts to design them into websites, web applications, desktop software, mobile sites and mobile applications. Below are some examples of user interfaces which are applying his rules of thumb.

Visibility of system status

This rule helps communicate to the user, the current state.

This state might be a transitional one, where you want to inform the user how the transition is progressing:

Progress CogsProgress indicatorProgress Indicator

The state might be where you are in a set of stages, and how those stages are going:

From Mint a progress in the process

The state might have changed, so you wish to inform the user the progress and what has happened:

Showing state of completion

Match between system and the real world

This rule helps to connect the real world to the digital world. Allowing the interface to communicate an idea, connect to an emotion, or indicate an action.

The most popular use today is inline imagery:

Human Profile IconsSocial Media Icons

One example is the use of photographs or illustrations on a website to convey the message:

The illustration of connecting people across a world map, conveys the message of shared communication:

Facebook Network

Here is an example of a personal financial software element, connecting to the users emotions in an attempt to reinforce the reasoning why they created a saving goal for an online savings account:


User control and freedom

This rule helps the user do things and also recover from human error as they use the system. It is good practice to design for errors and allow the user the freedom and support to move forward and backwards in their endeavors.

One example is the ability to undo actions:

Undo DeleteUnfollow on Twitter

Consistency and standards

This rule states that users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. It goes as far as suggesting that the industry as a whole has a responsibility to maintain a level of consistancy regarding terminology and methodology. Also it is implied from this that the user should feel comfortable to expect and implied outcome based on their experience with other applications. Today there are many implied standards, which are growing by the second.

Comparison of product groups, Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel Toolbars using shared consistency, resulting in efficiency in learning and implied intuitiveness.

Consistency Toolbars

Error prevention

Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action. Users are often distracted from the task at hand, so prevent unconscious errors by offering suggestions, utilizing constraints, and being flexible.

ConfirmationHelping to remove errorspredictive

Recognition rather than recall

Minimize the user need to think by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

Helping with recall could be, helping to retreive forgotten passwords, browser history with a search function or recent actions on an eccomerce site. Good examples will aid the user in their endevours by labeling buttons and providing tips to help guide the user to the available next stages.

Amazon ResentChrome History

Flexibility and efficiency of use

Stated as being accelerators, unseen by the novice user, which may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.

Examples of accelerators are: exits in a wizard process so that advanced users can configure manuelly based on their experience and keyboard shortcuts which allow common actions to be coded into short cut key combinations.

Shortcuts PremiereShortcuts List

Aesthetic and minimalist design

Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed.

If you replace the word dialogues with the word screen or page, you will fully understand the meaning that Jakob Nieson is infering. There is great temptation to cram in every feature on a homepage, drawing away and distracting the primary user functions. This includes things like upselling in eccomerce when barriers are placed to stop the user preceeding to purchase until they say no to a lot of unrequired accessories.

Good examples:

Windows 8Goggle UI

Bad examples:

America Airlines Clutter Bucket

Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors

Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution (ways the user can resolve the problem).

A good example for this heuristic is inline form validation, which prompts the user to correct errors or make better choices based on the users input. When an error occures which the user can not surcomvent, there should be a method to take this error to a support structure so that the user can continue towards a possible resolution. A good example of doing this badly would be the “sorry please try again later” message, which seems to a default message.

Join TwitterCannot Add Image404 Message

Help and documentation

Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

If you have implemented all of the above best practices, then you only need a limited documentation that its either easily searchable or/and indexed in a way the user can relate to the task at hand.

Many would argue now that help should be inline, or accessable from the task at hand. Using things like tooltips and help panel for advanced tasks. But Jakob Niesen still advacates a help documentation, or at the very least a frequently asked questions library.

Here is Adobe sticking to the letter of what Jakob Niesen outlines:

Adobe Help Interface


In summary, Jakob Niesen proposes a set of guidance rules, which have gone on and helped the industry for the last 10 years. They are as relevant today as they were back then, because they are based on his experience with human computer interaction.

  1. Preventing User Errors: Avoiding Unconscious Slips by Page Laubhimer, 2015
  2. Memory Recognition and Recall in User Interfaces by Raluca Budiu, 2014
  3. Topic: Heuristic Evaluation – Full set of articles on Heuristic Evaluation
Chris BarklemExamples of the heuristics of usability in practice
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User Research – Yes, Talking With Real Users

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User research is an applied research method. Its like being a detective, about seeking the truth, sifting through the facts. Talking with real users can be a reality check, which for most User Experience Designers, is too much for their ego to bear.

Talking to a user should be something like:

  • an afternoon to two days
  • 5-15 people
  • sessions of 30-60 minutes

Clients are resistant to designers talking directly to real users

Looking back, I think that every single client I have ever had, has not wanted me to talk to real users. Here are the normal reasons:

  • too expensive
  • too much time, there’s no time
  • we already know our audience, very well

Well that is one way of looking at it. The truth is that the designer might not know the users. When designing awesome user experience, the user experience designer has to know the user, how else will he be able to have empathy with the users needs.

I have found that most of the time, the client doesn’t fully understand the goals and needs of its customers. Most clients believe in their product and think that by really believing in it, the customers will also believe in it. But most of the time, there is something good about the product, it just needs to deliver inline with the needs and goals of the real user.

Measure twice, cut one (yes I was a carpenter)

By looking at the needs and goals of real users. By listening to them in real life, in their environment. The user experience designer can then approach the project with the targets and goals confirmed. Most of the time, it is not until the product is released or the months that follows, when user feedback is listened to. I have seen so many clients care about users only after the product launch when the only budget they had left was marketing. In my experience you can never market your way out of a true user experience problem.

How do I find real users?

This is really project / product specific. But here is some ideas to keep in mind.

  • Friends of friends, or contacts of contacts
  • Random on the street
  • Where they congregate
  • Online tools
  • Surveys
  • Screeners
  • Specialist firms

What we are looking for are users or potential users of the product. Using your network, you can reach out on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. You could stand on the street and get random opinions. But my favorite is using tools like meetup, find the real product evangelists and meet them in person.

What do you ask them?

There are many books on interviewing and surveying. Lots are concerned with how the interviewer is biasing the question, or how the question is written, or the environment of the interview. But for the user experience designer, we are simply being Sherlock Holmes.

Behind the truth is the truth. People do one of two things, tell lies or tell their version of the truth. Most of the time, people think about how they can say things which make them seem better. Saying that would do something, or even do something often, when in fact they would not ever take the time or commitment. So we need to be in the background. Listening to the truth when it is released from the group. By being in the users familiar environment, a place where they are comfortable, the users will tell the truth from time to time. As user experience designers we prowl around the edges of the conversations, listening and hoping to capture the true. We should not be prompting the conversations into a desired direction, but questions are allowed. But be careful with a question. If a person is talking about something that they love, and you challenge them with a question they will go on the defensive. But if a person is talking about something they love, and you show interest, they will never be able to stop talking.

Open end questions

A simple yes or no is a failure in user research. All it is doing is confirming the users understanding of the question. What we need to be doing is using open ended questions like.

  • How do you get to work in the morning?
  • When do you use your car?
  • Where do you shop for cloths?

The questions need to be related to the experience the user has had. Asking them to make decisions on design related question is more for focus groups, where opinions can be measured. For now we are only focusing on the users need or goals.

Listen for clues

Rarely will the user be able to define their needs or their goals. Instead listen to what they are telling and not what they are saying. For instance when the user says “I find it hard to find parking outside my sons school”, think how many moms are having the same problem. Or “Its hard to use the phone when taking the dog for a walk” what they mean is its hard to use the application one handed.

Show me

If at all possible, let the user show you the problems they are facing. This will help you to make use cases clearly. See the steps and reasoning behind how they are approaching and attempting to solve a problem.


What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Well what we are really doing is looking at the truth. Opening up the box of users, seeing their problems in context so that:

We can have empathy

Its all about having empathy with your users, the personas in the user groups. We can then make honest reasoning and answer questions from a users perspective. Remember, clients care about business, users care about their goals and their needs. Be careful about interviewing the client  to answer key user needs and be very careful when looking at key user goals.

Here is a link to Steve Krug’s website with some great user research materials for free.

Chris BarklemUser Research – Yes, Talking With Real Users
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The tactical advantage of liking your users – WWMD

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Some people think that its great to talk about how fantastic the product is. How awesome the product is, how it has benefits, how its different to the competition. Internet related products are soooo guilty of this, with so many sites crammed with pro version features, upgrade benefits and awards from pay-to-enter competition.

Stop – Whats the clients goals? 

Its your job, as a UX designer, to help users be AWESOME!!!!! With that in mind its much easier to look at who is important, and why they are important. Its your job to make the site into the perfect host. The site should be empowering the user to become awesome.

Why make the user awesome?

Because it makes the business money. Many of the best products on the web today, started out with a MVP (Minimum Viable Product), then just kept on building and building until the product became too complex, too cluttered. But by loving the user, the products have stopped prioritizing users requests for additional functionality. Instead, put the users experience at the center. A great example would be operating systems like Windows and MacOS, or productivity tools like Word, Excel, Adobe Suite.

Become the perfect host

As user experience designers, we want to build and think like the perfect host at a party. Greeting and addressing the needs of our guests. Making them feel comfortable. Making sure they have their glasses full, that everyone is part of the party and not on the sidelines. A great host will anticipate the needs and plan ways of meeting them. For me it seems like hours of shopping, preparation and then cooking. For my wife, it is more greeting, circling, bring groups together, making introductions.

If you love your guest. The effort seems to be more like a joy, the way we even think about the needs, becomes more realistic and even beyond what the guest thinks they needed. I remember at my sons last birthday party, a guest commented that he did not know how hungry he was until he saw me working hard cooking in the kitchen and making canapes.

If we love our guests we think about their true needs, their dreams, how we can make them awesome.

The Mom Users

One way to think in the right frame of mind is to user the mom approach. When you come face to face with any problem related to the user, just think WWMD (What Would Mom Do). The first correct thing that your doing is thinking like Mum, or thinking not like you, which is so important when looking at user related problems. The second thing is that you know your mom, you know her like a persona. But more importantly you can do the honest thing and state: “To be honest, my mum would ….”.

The Mom User is a great B.S. detector

When presented with content or text, which has a marketing or business/product slant to it. Test it against the Mom. What would Mom think? Would normal people understand the message, would they know why its being said. Or is it just the product tooting its own horn (Toot toot). Its the role of the UX designer to work with marketing, to stop marketing from misleading the user, stop marketing from harassing the user, start marketing on the road to communicating and building the brand experience with the user.

So the Mom user can be that persona that lives in your head and keeps you honest. Gives you that feeling of when there is something wrong.

The Mom is not like your real users

Its hard to get the Mom persona to work in every context, its hard to explain to clients using your Mom as an example. But what we are really saying is that we are looking at the problem with empathy (with the users best interest at heart).

At the critical stage when the client wants to break everything

There is always a moment in the project, sometimes mid way, most of the time near to or at the end, when the client loses focus on the user and wants to make changes which really impact the user experience. From my experience its when the prototype is shown to people which the client respects or is senior to the client.

The client will want to make changes to the user experience, which can really break the whole product or website. It is at this time, that the client needs to be questioned as to the true motivation behind why they want to make these changes. This is where empathy comes into the toolbox. By having empathy with your users, you can approach the impact from the users perspective, explain this impact and suggest better ways to deliver the new idea which the client is forcing into the project. Sometimes, more often then not, the client realizes once its pointed out clearly, that the idea is a spanner and they (if they are being true to project) remove the idea off the table.

So remember, like, have empathy, and make your users awesome. When in any doubt, take your mom to work.



Chris BarklemThe tactical advantage of liking your users – WWMD
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Design For Your Users – Defining user groups and user needs (user goals)

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When we start looking at a UX problem, we tend to look with our own eyes. We might use the term, the user wants…. but what we might be saying or what the clients might be saying is that “I” want….

Marketing might say something like, the users want to signup for newsletters. Come on, the users never want to signup for more marketing emails. What the user wants is something personal, something selfish. Like the user wants to progress in their career, or the user want to know something which will help them to do something or do something easier.

Here is a simple way to help you look at what the user wants, instead of what the client or user experience designer wants.

The user is a           

who wants to           

So for a food website, a user could be web developer, or a taxi driver, or a doctor ….. any person on the planet with access to the food website. But why would they access the website? What is the common need? The user is a plumber, who wants to eat pizza.

So to for the site Facebook. When it began its journey, so many years ago. It would have answered the question like this: The user is a Harvard Student, who wants to Checkout Girls.

So for all, yes ALL!!! projects. You need to find the list of users and the list of wants. Some sites will fulfill many needs and have many large groups of user (Personas). But by defining those groups and those interconnected needs, the UX designer can start to put together the overall agreed goals of the project.

Chris BarklemDesign For Your Users – Defining user groups and user needs (user goals)
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