UX Decalogue: Nielsen's 10 heuristics in practical application | KISS digital

A co-founder and managing partner of KISS digital.

Senior Editor.

UX Decalogue: Nielsen's 10 heuristics in practical application

Usability of digital products has a key impact on their market success. Nielsen heuristics are an important tool supporting work on usability of applications or websites. We give you a brief overview on how they work based on specific examples.

They sound enigmatic and vague to the layman's ears. Professional UX designers have them at their fingertips and know exactly how to use them. In the simplest terms, Nielsen heuristics are a kind of checklist for usability designers. Thanks to the guidelines contained in it, designers are able to assess the level of UX friendliness of particular solutions and point out possible shortcomings. Nielsen's heuristics help to identify errors at an early stage of creating an application or a website, and as a result – to create a tool that will effectively achieve the assumed business objectives.

1. Show system status

It is about the need to maintain constant communication with the user and provide them with the necessary information describing the context they are currently in. If the user clicks on a button on a page or in an application, they need to be told right away that they did so, and that their action was recorded and produced a specific result. This can take the form of a preloader or a progress bar if the desired result cannot be displayed immediately after the action.

It is unacceptable that after clicking the button the application sends a query to the database, waits for an answer, and finally displays the information or reloads the page after two or three seconds. In this case, the user clicks the button several times before realizing that there is a delay. The lack of adequate information or displaying unclear information is equally unacceptable from the point of view of good UX practices.

2. Maintain consistency between system and reality

Translated into practical language, Nielsen's second heuristic means clear communication with the user. In its simplest sense, the recommendation comes down to avoiding overcomplicating: use simple terminology and easy solutions so that the person using the product does not feel lost.

It also includes the intuitiveness and pictorial representation of tools and functions. Examples include a digital audio controller in the form of a dial or indicating objects such as rental properties or parcel collection points on maps.

The second heuristic also dictates that the logic and chronology of processes should be preserved. Let's assume that a user signs up for a website. In order to activate the account, he or she has to click on a link received by email. Such information should appear immediately, so that the user can confirm registration and move freely on the site. Sometimes, however, the requirement is enforced later because the developers of the solution assume that it is better to let the user into the website or application and let them use it. But the user can detach from the screen, go to another tab or app, and return to the tool after an hour or a few days. The activation link will expire or disappear in a flood of emails and the process will need to be repeated – if the user wishes so. A seemingly minor detail can result in the loss of potential customers.

3. Give the user full control

The system must be flexible. It should not impose strict solutions on the user and make it difficult for them to achieve their goals. Suppose a user makes a mistake while filling out a multi-step form. From the IT point of view it would be more convenient to force the user to return to the starting point and start the whole process from scratch. However, from the usability point of view such a solution is a disaster. Public institutions, which do not care about petitioners, can afford it, but not the companies which are seeking customers. A user forced to enter data into a form "from scratch" is likely to complain about the application and use an alternative solution. Good UX practices require equipping the form with a "back" button and providing the user with the possibility to correct it without repeating the whole process.

4. Stick to standards and be consistent

Consistency, clarity and logic of the applied solutions are essential for the product to be easy to use and assimilate by the user. Legibility of communication is also important – consistency in the choice of words, graphic elements and suggested actions. Users should not have to guess what the author had in mind, and the designers should not have to reinvent the wheel. That is why it is important to follow the standards accepted in a given area. They are usually based on many years of practice and help avoid costly mistakes.

Such standards include the so-called design patterns. They are proven solutions for common problems occurring in the development of digital products. Popular examples of design patterns are breadcrumbs or filters. Methods of creating these tools are so well established that questioning them would surprise users and almost certainly would not pay off for designers.

Design patterns work well as sets of good practices, but in the area of design there are also more specifically established patterns of conduct. These are called design systems (a similar solution in the field of graphic design is the Logo Book). They are used mainly by large companies that create such guidelines for their own use as well as for their co-workers, subcontractors or clients.

The best known systems of this type are Google's Material Design or Apple's Human Interface. Based on the guidelines and tools contained in them, a developer is able to design an application with high UX values and user-friendly parameters. He is able to but it doesn't mean he will do it. Design systems do not lead developers by the hand, but support their competences and creativity.

The use of design systems is recommended for solutions that focus primarily on usability and less on individuality of solutions. This helps to minimize the risk of rejection of a product. An example of a product created based on Google's Material Design is the IdeaFactor24 app we designed.

5. Prevent errors

The best way to deal with errors is prevention. The designer should be able to identify an element of the system or process where there is a risk of user error and eliminate the weak point beforehand. This is often a relatively simple correction.

This was more or less the case when we worked on a system for a factoring company – one of our clients. As part of this work, we were implementing a project intended for limited liability companies that applied for factoring services. The problem we faced was related to the verification of the company's account, necessary to submit an application. Many users misunderstood the message and instead of verifying the company, they logged into their private account. As a result, the service provider lost clients who could not grasp the fairly complicated process and migrated to competitors. Fortunately, the fault – after careful diagnosis of the situation – turned out to be easy to fix. The improvements were made primarily in the area of communication. We ensured that the user was made aware of clearly defined requirements before proceeding with verification.

A common and simple way to prevent errors is validation. For example, in the form of a simple function that allows you to check the correctness of the format of a phone number or e-mail address entered by the user.

6. Let the user choose instead of requiring them to remember things

User memory should be saved. The interface should be understandable and easy to use. Performing subsequent steps within a process should not depend on the ability to recall information contained elsewhere. Necessary data should be easy to spot or find. These are the main guidelines from Nielsen's sixth heuristic.

A simple example of their use in the area of e-commerce is displaying recently viewed items. With this feature, users who have aborted the purchase process can freely return to it without straining their memory. Bookmarks in web browsers implement the assumptions of the sixth heuristic in a similar way.

The principle "Let them choose instead of requiring them to remember things" also postulates information economy and adequacy of the presented information to the user's needs. This may concern e.g. displaying offers strictly fitting the selected criteria – without unnecessary surplus which could introduce chaos and burden the user's "working memory".

7. Ensure flexibility and efficiency

Let's start with an example – a self-referential one Let's assume that a user reads our text "UX audit can improve your company's business performance. Check what it is about", in which we mention Nielsen heuristics. A flexible and effective solution would be to place a link in the article to this text, which expands on the theme of heuristics. This can be done as a link in the title anchor text or a message like "Learn more about (...)".

And now something from e-commerce. A user is looking for mountain boots in an online shoe store. They have found a tempting offer and are about to make a decision, but have doubts about the size: they are not sure if the numbering used by the manufacturer is consistent with the one they usually encounter. A savvy online store, designed with usability in mind, has a solution for this situation: it will present the user with a size chart to allay their fears and help them complete the transaction.

The assumptions of Nielsen's seventh heuristic also correspond to various forms of personalization, including shopping suggestions. A user who is buying mountain boots might be suggested to buy a repellent or crampons.

Nielsen's flexibility and efficiency, then, means such convenience of solutions that helps achieve a goal faster within a given system. It also calls for logical shortcuts in interfaces – such as keyboard shortcuts.

Moreover, flexibility implies giving users the possibility to achieve their goals in different ways and to use the methods that are most suitable for them. This is so that advanced users can navigate the system faster and more efficiently, and less advanced users – in a clearer and, from their point of view, safer way.

8. Take care of aesthetics and moderation

Aesthetics matter – it is obvious. An app or website designed with attention to the visual layer provides a pleasant experience for the user and increases the likelihood of them returning. However, in the design of digital products, beauty should be combined with minimalism. It is important to remember that customers use the tool for a specific purpose. The easier they achieve it, the more satisfied they will be. Simplicity supports this effort because it increases the legibility of the interface and makes navigation easier. That is why an attractive graphic layer should not be sought at the expense of clarity. It is better to avoid elements that are simply ornaments, bringing nothing to the functionality.

In the context of the eighth heuristic, it is worth recalling the concept of the Norman Door. It is an example of failed design, invented by American cognitive psychologist and pioneer of user experience research, Donald Norman. It refers to the information "sent" by various objects about what can be done with them. Some solutions or objects are designed in such a way that it is easy to guess how to use them. Others offer no such clues. Also, a door with a handle or a certain type of grip may indicate how to open it (e.g. by pushing, pulling or sliding). A door whose design makes it impossible to guess how to open it are Norman doors.

Similar standards apply to digital products. An app or website – and its components – should be designed in such a way that it leaves the user in no doubt as to how to use it. Guidelines should be an integral part of the composition. For example, a drag & drop box should be marked with a dotted line, and it's best to indicate where to turn off the window with a "familiar" cross.

As far as global solutions are concerned, minimalism also means appropriate hierarchization of content. For example, in an online store, the offer or other type of important commercial information (e.g. tempting discounts) should be visible in the front, rather than a piece of knowledge about the company's CSR activities.

9. Ensure effective error handling

These are situations in which the user, despite conscious action, is not able to obtain the expected result. Such events are inevitable. Errors of navigational or "operational" nature are made even by persons familiar with the specificity of the system operation. Therefore, when designing a tool, care should be taken to ensure that it allows users to easily get out of any foreseeable difficulties. This is achieved, among others, by clear communication: informing about errors, their causes and ways of solving problems in language understandable for an average person.

An example of best practice for Nielsen's ninth heuristic is forms that include clear, precise messages about misspelled data. If, while filling out a three-page form, a user makes a mistake at the very beginning, you should not leave them to guesswork. It will be better to show them where the problem occurs and – if it is not obvious – what the reason is. It is even better to move the user to the place of the erroneous (or omitted) entry, so that they can quickly and easily make the correction.

10. Provide support and documentation

An ideal application should provide full comfort of use and be free from any ambiguities. However, it is difficult to meet the needs of all users, regardless of their competence. It is also not always possible to design an interface in such a way that it would solve all foreseen problems. That is why various forms of help and documentation are an indispensable component of usability of a given system. Starting with FAQ, through tutorials, to chat or hotline. Of course, care must be taken to properly embed these features in the application or website interface and make them easily accessible.

Proper understanding of Nielsen's heuristics and implementation of their tips requires a lot of experience in user experience design. However, the challenge is worth taking seriously. A professional and conscientious approach to usability issues pays off in terms of business results. And vice versa. Negligence in terms of usability will sooner or later result in revenue declines. A badly designed solution will generate less income than we expect.

If you want to consult your project for usability or perform a UX audit of your existing system, contact us!

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A co-founder and managing partner of KISS digital. Responsible for the development strategy and cooperating with clients and partners.

Przemysław Ćwik

Senior Editor.