Its a fancy sounding term. But when it comes down to it, Heuristic Evaluations are basically going through an interface and writing down all things that match a list of abstract good or bad features. Its a bit more formal and structured than that and it helps if you are an experienced professional. But thats the basic idea.
Its easy to see how this simple idea can be a powerful and cheap way to discover usability problems. In some ways its just a more rigorous and formal version of the way I would find usability issues as a developer. But it reminds me of the usability report I once saw that the Nielsen Norman Group did for a site I was working on at the time: Merck.com. Although I can’t find my copy now, I remember at the time thinking that many of the suggestions in the report sounded reasonable in the abstract, but didn’t really seem that relevant or applicable in this specific case. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, as I don’t remembering talking about it that much at work and I’m not sure if any recommendations of the report were actually implemented.
Using this Heuristic Evaluation for the first time myself, I can see myself finding “issues” that I can justify with the given list of usability principles and thus quickly record. For example on the site I’m evaluating, having all these ads clearly violate the “aesthetic and minimalist design” principle (even though they are Google text ads). However, I would never think that this was an issue normally and I’m not convinced that its really important. After all, the site has to make money or at least defer some of the server costs and the ads are not that distracting. I’m only recording it because I’m explicitly looking for things off of a given list and the goal of the game is to find as many as possible, even if they are minor infractions and don’t really cause any harm in the given context. I feel that I’m thinking like the usability experts who wrote that Merck.com report that I scoffed at and ignored so many years ago.
This seems to be a somewhat known issue with Heuristic Evaluation since it was discussed in class that it tends to find many issues that don’t have a noticeable impact on usability. However, my criticism is not so much that it tends to find minor issues. I’m all for more polish in interfaces. It seems that it manufactures artificial issues that are only of concern to people temporarily confined to reading off of a list of ten usability principles.