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Expert review vs heuristic evaluation

Both Expert Reviews and Heuristic Evaluations have their place in evaluating how user-friendly or simply useable a system or website is, but it’s important to first establish the difference between the two. What are they, how do they differ, and when are they valuable methods in terms of user research?

Whilst both methods are used to evaluate user experience, neither of these techniques involves actual users. An expert review, as its namesake suggests, is conducted by UX experts, those with years of experience behind them. Whereas a heuristic evaluation can technically be conducted by anyone, as long as those doing it (and there should be several) are all using the same ‘set’ of heuristics.

Heuristic evaluation

The ‘set’ of criteria used in the heuristic evaluation are chosen from a list of design principles known as heuristics. “They are called "heuristics" because they are broad rules of thumb and not specific usability guidelines” - Jakob Neilson. Those conducting the evaluation use these ‘rules’ to evaluate the compliance of the interface in question with whichever set of rules you have chosen. In UX and design, most commonly, consultants will use a set of 10 heuristics established by Jakob Neilsen. Although it should be noted that there are others you can use. Choosing the right ‘set’ depends on what you are looking to evaluate and why.

Expert review

In contrast to this, as mentioned above, an expert review involves a UX expert evaluating the interface to identify potential usability issues. This method does take the heuristics into consideration but is not explicit to these set of rules. An expert review relies on the expertise and past experience of the individual conducting it and allows them to identify any issues which may affect the user experience, including those which fall out with the heuristics. In an ideal world, an expert review should be conducted by both a UX expert and a subject matter expert, however, often this is not plausible. An advantage of contracting an agency to conduct the review is they bring their experience from working across multiple sectors, and are therefore the next best thing.

What should be included?

It’s imperative that when conducting either of these usability evaluations that you never denounce the system or website entirely. No one wants to be told their baby is ugly. The ‘criticism’ should always be delivered constructively, clearly highlighting the issue, its impact on the user and which heuristic was violated. In the instance of the expert review, ensure to clearly identify why your observation causes problems and where possible, it is also important to highlight what works well within the design so that these are not lost in future design iterations. 

As UX experts, it’s our job to provide solutions, not just highlight problems. Including clear recommendations for improving any issues you have uncovered, provides the client with valuable takeaways, and often quick-fix solutions that can drastically improve the user experience of their website or system. 

It’s also a good idea to reference best practise examples. Clients are visual creatures and if they can see where another company or organisation is doing something great, they’ll be more likely to get on-board with implementing their own take on the same thing! 

Another key way in which we, as UX experts, can ensure that what we deliver to our clients is practical and actionable is to prioritise the issues we uncover according to severity. Typically, this will highlight issues which cause immediate impact upon the user, preventing them from completing their task successfully; issues which cause them serious frustration and hinder their ability to use the website, and any minor or cosmetic issues. This allows our clients to focus their efforts on fixing those which require more urgent attention to improve the user experience. 

When are they valuable? 

So when are each of these methods valuable research tools? Why would you consider them over getting real end-users involved? Here are a few of the most common reasons:

  • Research budget is small - not all projects can accommodate (although we obviously advocate they should) meaningful budget and resources towards user research. Expert reviews, in particular, are cheaper than other research methods.
  • Time is limited - both methods are great for providing meaningful feedback quickly, a review takes a couple of days compared to Usability Testing which can take a couple of weeks to recruit and run.
  • To inform other research methods - identify ‘problem areas’ that can potentially be easily resolved before testing with actual users.
  • To identify quick wins - prioritise your road map of further research and design.

It’s easy to confuse these two review methods, so before you go ahead and use either make sure that you are clear on the difference between the two, how to provide actionable insight and when they provide value:

  • Heuristic evaluations are based solely on a known set of design principles, whereas expert reviews consider both these principles and rely on a UX expert's experience and knowledge.  
  • They’re best used when a project is stretched for time and money, or to identify focal points for the next phase of your project. 
  • They’ll help you provide your client with quick-fix solutions and kick-start them on their way to improving their interface, before delving deeper into implementing the “ideal” solution to fixing any issues identified. 

In choosing your evaluation or review, make sure that it's not the only thing you do towards improving the user experience!

Take a look at our discovery and UX services to see where we can help. 

To find out more about how to improve your user experience