Before we meet with any users there are things we can do ourselves to think critically (and smarter) about the products we're building, and that will help make tests more effective. Research methods can always be combined, and in fact, it's an excellent idea to conduct multiple tests and different research to create a more accurate and complete picture of your users.
One tool that may help inform your approach to research are design principles. Design principles are high level principles that guide design decisions throughout a project, and can be adapted by each company. Think about design principles in terms of what qualities and kind of product represents our company? There are universal design principles that should apply to every user experience, while specific design principles are often defined by the team (some companies will hold workshops to define their design principles, which are often revisited every year or so). Once principles are defined by a team they can help guide design decisions and can lead to a better, more consistent experience for your users.
Jakob Nielsen on Usefulness, Utility and Usability [2:12 min]
Heuristics – from the Greek word for discover – are one type of universal design principles. A heuristic evaluation involves reviewing a checklist of principles to against your website or app. Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group developed his 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design in 1995, which showcases the universality and timelessness of these guidelines. His 10 heuristics are presented below with alternative descriptions.
Visibility of system status – How do you know the page you're on didn't freeze or crash? Think about how status bars and wheels are used.
Match between system and the real world – How are connections between real world situations, conventions, and language used inform digital choices and provide clarity?
User control and freedom – How can users navigate out of a place where they don't want to be? How do they close a pop-up or exit a window?
Consistency and standards – Are language and situations consistent throughout your site or app?
Error prevention – Have errors been avoided in the first place? How are they minimized?
Recognition rather than recall – Are objects, options and actions visible, consistent and make sense across different parts of the site? Is there clear recognition?
Flexibility and efficiency of use – Are there tools [accelerators] for speeding up interactions, particularly for return or regular users?
Aesthetic and minimalist design – Is there unnecessary, irrelevant, or distracting information?
Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors – Are error messages clear, direct and in plain language that anyone can understand?
Help and documentation – Are there tools or documentation to help the user better use your product, even if it's not completely necessary?
There are also alternative principles, including Whitney Hess's Guiding Principles for Experience Design and Susan Weinschenk's Psychological Usability Heuristics. Stanford also provides a list for evaluating and improving your website credibility . It's a good idea to review the different lists of principles and heuristics in order to determine which will be most useful for what you're currently evaluating, and what your goals are.
Whitney Hess presents her 10 design principles with examples. Warning: she talks fast because of the "ignite" format of presentation where the slides auto-advance for the 5-minute format; also she drops in a few bad words, so be warned. [5:09 min]
Run a heuristic evaluation
In order to run a heuristic evaluation:
Determine what exactly you want to evaluate (an entire website or a certain functionality)
Define your audience
Decide which set of heuristic principles you want to use. (You can also select certain principles rather than testing them all.)
Evaluate website or app using the principles.
Analyze your findings and share your results.