Usability Heuristics

Guidelines to design have a long tradition in interface design. There are literally thousands now available, in many forms and variations. These tend to fall in the categories of: motherhoods (or general guidelines); specific guidelines that say exactly what should be done in a given situation; style guides that are particular to a look and feel; and widget-level guidelines that are embedded within the actual toolkit.

Most of this module develops general design guidelines, detailing what they mean and how the interface should cater to them. In particular, I show how guidelines can be used as a low-cost evaluation technique via heuristic evaluation. Through this method, several evaluators inspect the interface for compliance to the guidelines. While heuristic evaluation does not require users' involvement, it still manages to capture many major usability problems.




Required Readings

  1. Improving a Human-Computer Dialogue, Nielsen and Molich, March 1990, Communications of the ACM 33(3), ACM Press.
  2. Chapter 5: Usability heuristics. Nielsen, J. (1993) In Usability Engineering, p115-163, Academic Press.

In-Class Teaching tips

With each guideline, I do a heuristic evaluation of two interfaces in class. The interfaces are Cheap Shop (already used in the task centered system design section), and Mantel (see the Nielson and Molich source below). The students analyze the interface in class and come up with potential problems.

There is also a hands on component. If students do final projects, they are evaluated via the heuristic evaluation method. Students get a check-sheet ahead of time with the guidelines written on it. I schedule a half-hour with each project group, and do a heuristic evaluation of their system, discussing the results with them.

Additional Readings

  1. Enhancing the explanatory power of usability heuristics. Nielsen, J. (1994) In Proceedings of the CHI'94 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, p152-158.
  2. Chapter 2: Heuristic evaluation. Nielsen, J. (1994) In J. Nielsen and R. Mack (eds) Usability Inspection Methods, p25-62, Wiley and Sons.
  3. Excerpts from Human Computer Interaction: Towards the Year 2000 by Baecker, Grudin, Buxton and Greenberg, Morgan Kaufmann Press.


  1. The Piano Tutor, by CMU (1990, SVGR 55) presents a piano tutoring tool that is in the language of the user ie, input devices are the piano (mostly), and output is via score annotation, music playing, and video lessons. It also demonstrates how error correction is done, and how help is provided in context.
  2. The Sonic Finder, by Bill Gaver shows how everyday sound can be used to provide feedback of user actions. 

Major sources used to prepare lecture material

  1. The readings offered above offer much detail.
  2. Nielsen's Usability engineering, 1993, Academic Press, details the heuristics.
  3. Nielsen, J. (1994) Chapter 2: Heuristic evaluation. In J. Nielsen and R. Mack (eds) Usability Inspection Methods, p25-62, Wiley and Sons details when, where and how heuristic evaluation are effective.
  4. Specific interface guidelines for text-based transaction systems are offered by Smith and Mosier's Guidelines for Designing User Interface Software, 1986 MITRE Corporation [Ftp site].