Heuristic analysis: A step-by-step guide to analysing your website

Table of Contents

What is heuristic analysis, how do you do it and why does it matter?

If you want to discover new website optimisation opportunities,

If you don’t have enough traffic or don’t generate a minimum of monthly conversions (300+) to do a statistically significant A/B test.

Si quieres descubrir cualquier fricción y bloqueo en tu funnel

In order to fix it and increase conversions, then you need a heuristic analysis.

Because when you do it, and you do it well, it can help you fix a lot of problems.

In this post, I’ll explain everything you need to know about running a heuristic analysis. All of it.

Including all these things you don’t want to miss:

Why a heuristic analysis is such a powerful optimisation tool.
How to use Jacob Nielsen’s 10 usability principles to add depth to your analysis (So you can find exactly where the leaks are occurring).
How to set measurable goals for your analysis (plus the questions you need to ask yourself to achieve your goals).

And more.

To get the most out of it, I share the template I use to gather my findings.

Heuristic analysis is a very interesting process that every web manager should do. Whether you are just starting out with a website, you have a website that is up and running, or you have a new product.

Whatever it is, heuristic analysis can be an amazing way to discover several things that we will get into in a moment.

What is the purpose of heuristic evaluation?

A heuristic evaluation, or heuristic analysis, is a process used to discover usability problems in any app or website.

  • Uncover usability problems
  • Uncover hidden opportunities
  • Find the main obstacles and barriers that prevent users from finding what they are looking for
  • Prioritise optimisation needs

The way it works is that one or more experts work on the website evaluation.

The whole process is designed to help uncover hidden opportunities on your website, find obstacles that need to be fixed and prioritise them into an optimisation roadmap.

So let’s talk a bit about the purpose of this.

On the one hand, it’s about uncovering usability issues. Just finding those problems that you have on the page. It uncovers hidden opportunities, finds key obstacles and barriers that prevent users from performing tasks on your site and helps you prioritise your optimisation stuff.

So, before I start talking about how you can perform a heuristic analysis, I want to highlight the pros and cons of performing a heuristic analysis, because there are many different aspects.

The pros of heuristic analysis

Let’s talk about the pros.

1. The process requires a limited budget

You will need one to three UX experts to do the analysis.

You don’t need huge tools, you don’t need to spend a ton of money. It’s really on a limited budget.

So if you don’t have a ton of money to spend right now, then heuristic analysis is a great option for you.

2. Running a heuristic analysis is fast

If you do it right, you can do a heuristic analysis in a few hours.

That’s another thing that’s really cool because a lot of times, a lot of these optimisation processes take a ton of time to do, and it takes a long time to get results.

But heuristic analysis or heuristic evaluation can be done in a few hours.

3. You can perform a heuristic analysis before launching

If you are working on a new product launch, you can do a heuristic test before people interact with it.

Then you will discover many problems you may have before people get to use it.

4. A simple and repeatable way to optimise your funnel

It is also relatively simple to repeat this process every time you want to optimise a part of your funnel, launch a new product or evaluate something else in the customer journey.

It’s very different from running A/B tests that take a certain amount of time to collect data.

Heuristic analysis, or heuristic evaluation, can be repeated many times.

5. Perfect for low traffic sites

If you don’t have a lot of traffic or monthly conversions to do an AB test, a heuristic analysis may be the perfect fit.

To do an A/B test, you will need at least 300 conversions per month on your website.

Sometimes it can take six months or more to do an A/B test if you don’t have enough traffic, or enough numbers, enough conversions per month.

Running a heuristic evaluation can speed up that process for you, and help you find the immediate things that can be changed and optimised without testing.

Challenges and limitations you will face when doing heuristic analysis

However, there are also some limitations. There are some things that are not so good.

1. Our cognitive biases can affect the results.

There are some other options to avoid biases, but you can compare it with heat maps, user recordings, usability testing, user testing, or even confirm it with Google Analytics data.

That’s one of the things that you really need to be aware of, your cognitive biases, or the biases that you just have emotionally towards certain designs and certain products, or certain features.

That’s why, when you do a heuristic analysis, it’s important to have more than one person do it.

2. You need experience

The other thing is that you need an expert:

A UI and UX expert who can actually evaluate a site from a professional point of view. Now maybe you have someone on the team, perfect. If you don’t, then it can be a bit difficult to find someone. It’s not impossible, but it’s something you have to spend some time and money on.

3. It’s done without the input of your target audience

Unlike A/B testing, a heuristic analysis is done in private without the participation of your users or customers.

This can lead to some wrong assumptions and incorrect evaluations. That is why a heuristic analysis is always done together with other elements. It is never done alone and only depends on it. You always have to do more research to validate all this.

You have to remember that unlike A/B testing, only you and your experts look at the page. It is not the actual users interacting with it.

4. A heuristic analysis should never be done in a silo.

A heuristic analysis by itself is not enough. After completion, it is always necessary to follow up with user testing, on-site surveys, customer surveys, or other methods to verify what will be found.

While heuristic analysis is important and a very good tool, never use it in isolation.

How to run a meaningful and optimised heuristic analysis using Jakob Nielsen’s 10 usability principles

Now that we’ve covered the basics of what a heuristic analysis is and the different pros and cons of it, I want to talk about how to perform a meaningful and optimised heuristic analysis that provides the necessary insights to optimise websites.

There are many different metrics and rules you can follow when performing a heuristic analysis on your website, but the most famous and common one is Jakob Nielsen’s 10 usability principles.

It is the most widely used method for evaluation, and I strongly suggest you use it if you are just starting out. You can really count on these 10 points and you’ll be all set.

Let’s review what your usability principles are. What I mean by that is that when you’re looking at a website, you’re evaluating according to these principles, rules and metrics.

1. Visibility

The site should always keep people informed about its status. You should always be able to know as a user what is happening.

This allows people to feel in control, take appropriate action, achieve the goal, and ultimately trust the brand.

2. Mapping

Essentially for Jakob Nielsen, mapping means using the words of your audience.

The website, or product, should always speak the language of the audience, the language of the audience with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user.

To do that, you will need to conduct different surveys on your website, do some interviews and really get to know the language people use.

What Jakob Nielsen says is, use those words. Don’t invent your own jargon, don’t try to invent the wheel. Use your customer’s words.

3. Freedom

The idea is that you provide good defaults, and options to undo their previous action.

People always make mistakes on a website, or take the wrong path on their journey, so freedom means allowing them to easily return to the previous state, and rethink their steps.

A back button, for example, or having breadcrumbs and being able to click on the previous breadcrumb to go back. Just allowing that freedom to navigate freely from one step to another.

4. Consistency

Your product and your website should always use the same interface and layout on every page. You want to be consistent with your design.

People should not have to wonder if certain words or actions mean something else, and I have seen this constantly on various websites and in various areas where you have different layouts on different pages, different fonts, different colours, buttons or call to action suddenly appear in different colours and all of this is problematic.

5. Error prevention

Does your website help people avoid making mistakes?

Your website should eliminate any screens, actions or words that might cause people to make mistakes or misunderstand what is going on. If possible, provide people with the option to confirm a certain action such as “Are you sure you want to exit the screen?” Make sure you know that when you leave this screen or if you log out, this information will not be saved.

The idea is to constantly give people the option to avoid mistakes they are about to make.

6. Recognition

The idea is to minimise users’ cognitive load, their need to remember what to do next. People should not have to remember the information themselves, and you should make sure that you are giving clear instructions.

7. Flexibility

Make sure that the different tasks and actions on your website are easy to perform for both novice and novice users, and this is key to a really good customer journey.

8. Minimalism

Provide only the most necessary information on a page in the most elegant way. The idea is to eliminate friction.

9. Error recovery

Essentially you are helping users to recognise, diagnose and recover from errors.

Errors we make on a form, for example, should be clearly indicated and explained. So the idea is that when you’re filling in a form and you make a mistake, you don’t expect people to understand that they’ve made a mistake, but to actually tell them what it is and what mistake they’ve made, and how they can fix it.

So a lot of the things here, as you can see, are about mistakes, about helping people move forward and backward, helping people prevent mistakes or helping people recover from mistakes they’ve made.

10. Help and documentation

Finally, make sure that the user can find all the information they need to perform certain tasks.

These are Jakob Nielsen’s 10 basic principles for heuristic evaluation.

The 4 objectives of a complete heuristic analysis

I’d like to be really practical, and I want to talk about where you can keep it and how to do your own heuristic analysis. So first things first, you have to achieve a few goals.

1. Creating clarity

The idea is that whenever you do a heuristic analysis, your goals are number one, to provide clarity. So that’s one of the things you’re going to do while you’re analysing a website and you’re doing a heuristic analysis.

The goal is to eliminate any concerns, blockages, or confusing elements and language.

That’s one of the goals of a heuristic analysis. To eliminate all these problems. So people should know exactly what their next action should be, and be able to quickly find the answers to their questions. So here are some questions you can ask yourself while looking at a page.

Whether you’re reviewing a landing page, or you’re reviewing a pricing page, or a product page, there are some questions you can ask yourself that will help you understand if the page you’re looking at provides clarity or not:

  1. Can people tell within five seconds of landing on your page what you provide and what the value is?
  2. Is it clear what page they are on and what actions they can take on the page?
  3. Does the visual hierarchy of the page, both text and images, help the user?
  4. Can people clearly identify what their next step in the process is?

Those are the three questions you want to ask yourself on every page when you do a heuristic analysis.

2. Ensuring relevance

Goal number two is to ensure that the page is relevant.

People should always feel that they are in the right place, and in the right direction to achieve their goals.

The information they receive on each page should only be relevant to the page they are on, and the next steps should be very clear. That means it is also relevant.

Those are the three questions you want to ask yourself on every page when you do a heuristic analysis.

  • Does the landing page match the ad or message where the user came from in terms of design and language?
  • Is the information they need to make a decision provided on the page without the need to navigate to another? Now, this is one that most websites fall into number two, where you send people to an additional page to read more when there really is no need to do so, and you could be providing that information on the first page.
  • Does your copy match the language of the target audience, and does it match the words in the user’s head when they think of your product or their problem?
  • Do the images you use on the page reflect both the value and relevance of the solution they are looking for, and do they serve as clarification and visual aids to help the user understand your point of view?

When you review your page, and try to achieve goal number two, you want to ask yourself these four questions.

3. Eliminate friction

The heuristic analysis process basically helps to identify the elements of your website that create friction. Your goal is to find these friction points and eliminate them.

Go back to any surveys you’ve done, polls, interviews, anything where you’ve researched customers and ask yourself:

  • Are there concerns, obstacles or challenges mentioned by your audience that are not addressed on the page?
  • Do people need to go through many steps to get the information they need or take an action?
  • Is there any information about your solution that is not on the page?
  • Are there any usability issues such as site speed, form fields that don’t work, specific actions that can’t be performed on mobile, or perhaps difficulty reading the copy on the page due to contrast or font size, and things like that.

So these are specific questions you can ask yourself when you’re trying to remove friction from the page.

4. Eliminate distractions

Any action or page element that does not directly contribute to helping users reach their goal is a distraction.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Are you offering additional products before one has been chosen?
  • Do you have too many options to choose from? When we have too many options, our brains opt out.
  • Asking people to share your page on social media. It’s a distraction that isn’t necessary.
  • Do you have an unrelated animation, image or banner that distracts people?
  • Do you have any relevant information on the page that doesn’t contribute in any way?
  • Do you have any irrelevant pop-ups on your page?

These are just some of the questions you might ask when approaching a heuristic analysis, but they are a great place to start and can set you in the right direction.

So we talked about four objectives of a heuristic analysis, and the different questions you can ask yourself. Now let’s talk about what you should evaluate during your analysis. So how to actually do a heuristic analysis.

How do you prioritise your heuristic analysis?

So we went through the objectives of a heuristic analysis. We went through the different types of things you should look at on each page.

Let’s say you’ve gone through everything, you’ve written down all your answers and it’s not just you. Again, it’s you and hopefully three or four other UX specialists, who go to the website and evaluate it.

How do you prioritise what really needs to be fixed and what needs to be addressed?

Essentially what you want to do is rate it according to the severity of the problem. So I suggest scaling the results that we’ve seen from one to four. So one is a minor fix that can be done with a cosmetic change, and it’s not a burning change. Two, it requires a low priority fix. Three means high priority, and four is that it’s catastrophic and needs to be fixed immediately.

The way I really rate them is according to the impact on the users, the revenue for the business.

How does this impact the users, and how does it impact the revenue for the business? For example, when I try to rate a certain heuristic issue that I have encountered, I ask myself:

  • How common is the problem on the site?
  • Is it a problem that people can overcome on their own, or does it require a solution?
  • Does it affect the main flow or journey of the website?
  • Does it affect the bottom line, and does it impact measurable conversions?
  • How long will it take to fix what resources are needed? What I mean by that is time, money, and equipment. The fewer resources needed, the better the outcome.

What I do is put together a very simple spreadsheet that you fill in.

Download the free template

On the left, type the URL of the page: a pricing page, landing page, about us page, whatever, registration page.

Then write the real problem you have found

Then compare it with the heuristic problem.

Go back to Jakob Nielsen’s list, and find where this problem fits.

Then rank according to severity. Is it major, is it minor? Is it a quick fix or does it require an immediate solution? How many people mentioned this?

This is a quick way to assess, putting everything on a spreadsheet makes it much easier to follow, and identify the most important elements that need to be fixed.

So essentially you’ve done all your heuristic assessment, you’ve put it into a spreadsheet and you’ve prioritised the most important things that need to be fixed, and you’ve scored them.

You can prioritise those as well, because then you’ll probably have to present this to your team or maybe to your clients. So to do that you will need to summarise all your findings, and present them in a way that highlights the most important elements, and is also highly actionable.

How to present the heuristic analysis?

  1. The process
  2. Who did it
  3. How we did it
  4. What pages we looked at
  5. If we use Jakob Nelsen’s heuristics, then I’ll provide that list and run it quickly through what each heuristic means, but just as a general note, just to say that these are the principles. It really lays the foundation of trust, so you can see it’s built on very specific metrics.
  6. The main issues that we found. So essentially what are the biggest problems that need to be fixed. Numbers and impact, so okay, we’re saying these two, three, five problems are the biggest things that need to be fixed. So the next thing is up to us to demonstrate the numbers and the impact. So the numbers essentially mean, how is this affecting us?

If you can go into Google analytics and show that there’s a big drop, if you can look at the heat maps and say we can see that this is a consistent problem because we can see that people are clicking around here, and they don’t know what to do, or we can see in the recordings, or we’ve interviewed people who have done user testing and they’ve all validated this.

So these are the numbers, and the impact of what it can do when we change it and optimise it. Of course, the prioritisation. So what are we going to do first, what are we going to do second, what are we going to do third, what are we going to do fourth? The actual solutions that we’re proposing. So if we know that we have a problem with the fact that the links look like plain text, then obviously the solution is pretty easy.

There are a lot of issues that we will find that can be problematic, and we have to come up with good ideas that show our team or our clients that we have solutions, and they’re not going to be too overwhelming.

So they’re not going to require too many resources to implement.


What should I do now?

If you have more questions and want to know how we work, contact us and one of our consultants will contact you for advice.

For further information on this and many other topics you can check out other articles in our blog where you will find references on this, and many more topics.

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