8 Usability Heuristics Every Designer Should Know


Once you’ve got a basic understanding of what usability is, you need a firm grasp on how to measure it in your own designs. How do you know if your products are actually usable? Here, we’ll share eleven ways to measure the usability of your products.

Usability

At first glance, “usability” may seem too vague or subjective to ever really know if your products are usable. This is why there are measures (known as heuristics) to help you understand how usable your products really are. Taken on their own, these heuristics are useful guides. Combined with usability testing, however, these heuristics have the power to (re)shape your designs and result in products that are more usable to more people—and more likely to succeed!
Here’s what we’ll cover:

1. Visibility of system status

This heuristic is all about communication. Make your products communicative and transparent about what they’re doing and the status of the users’ request or action. Make the system status clear to your user. This is especially critical in moments when the user has just submitted information or taken an action that they expect to result in something significant—like a transfer of money, the movement of a collection of files from point A to point B, a successful download or upload of content, etc.

2. Match between system and the real world

This heuristic ties into the fundamental UX concept of mental models. Your digital products need to work in ways that are congruent with users’ other, dominant ways of understanding the world. Not only should you look at, and in many ways cooperate with, the ways in which your users’ other digital experiences work, but you should also find ways to link their experience of your product to their non-digital realities.

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3. User control and freedom

We’ve all had that moment. Having the ability (built into the system) to go back and undo an action or edit information is critical to good usability. Google Drive does a great job of this when it tells us an action has been completed and gives an option to undo the action, in case it was accidental.

But this heuristic doesn’t only apply to lost files. Let’s say you’re shopping for jogging pants on Amazon and put a pair in your shopping cart (heuristic #2 at work there) to return to later.

4. Consistency and standards

This heuristic is all about Jakob’s Law: “Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.”

Your users don’t want your product to function in surprise ways at every turn. In fact, they may not want any surprises at all! Unless you’re designing a very specific kind of product, they haven’t come to your product to solve a riddle. They just want to get something done. It’s important that you make it easy for users to learn how your product works—and even easier to remember after they’ve gone away for a while.

5. Error prevention

If you’ve ever filled out a poorly designed form and been met with an error message for an incorrect address or phone number, you’ve got first-hand experience in the importance of this heuristic. Directly related to the heuristic of user control and freedom (in terms of providing a way to undo an action or edit information), this heuristic focuses on catching errors before they happen.

6. Recognition rather than recall

Simply put: don’t make your users work harder than they need to! Give them cues and reminders that help them complete tasks, rather than placing the burden of remembering on them. Your designs should always promote recognition over recall.

Recall is the process of remembering where you left off, who you spoke to last, how to go about this or that process. Recognition is the process of picking up cues that allow you to move forward in appropriate ways. Recognition is far and away the easier option because your brain can work in the moment rather than digging through memory to find your solution.

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7. Flexibility and efficiency of use

If you’ve ever used a keyboard shortcut to accomplish something on your computer system, in Photoshop, or anywhere else in your digital world, you know the importance of this heuristic. But even if technology is a mystery to you and you’ve never used a keyboard shortcut in your life, flexibility and efficiency of use is a critical measure of usability.

Here’s an example from Figma. When you first join the platform, you’re given a brief tour that introduces you to the key features and function of the platform. Then you dive in.

8. Aesthetic and minimalist design

This heuristic is all about information hierarchy. A simple 5-second eye test can reveal a lot about the priorities your actual design is communicating. Show the screen you’re designing to someone who hasn’t seen it yet. Give them five second to look at it and then take it away and ask what the screen is about, what it’s for, or what primary action you want users to take here. Chances are, you’ll find at least some small ways to improve your designs—to simplify them, and to give priority to the primary goals of that page.

Let’s have a look at a stunning example of this usability measure. Try the 5-second eye test on these two images—the GoDaddy homepage in 2015 versus that same page in 2020.