Ideally, if you have the funds and time, you should have professionals evaluate and test your website to optimize for usability. If you don't, keep reading. I am going to show you how you can complete your own usability evaluation in a much more affordable (and quick!) way using a heuristic evaluation.
What the heck are heuristics?Heuristics are the recognized usability principles (rules of thumb) used to judge and evaluate an interface, in this case, your website. They are, more or less, loose guidelines you can use to evaluate general aspects of usability. You should aim to reduce or eliminate the severity of major violations your website makes to these heuristics to improve the experience people will have when using it.
Nielson's 10 heuristics are the most widely used, but there are others out there you can look at too. I've included descriptions for Nielson's at the bottom of this page.
Why does this matter to me?I could go on and on about why usability matters, but the simple fact is, if your website is not friendly to the people trying to use it, they won't. And this is, of course, bad for your business.
So, what do I need to do?
For starters, you should recruit a couple of other willing evaluators to help because you will want to have the extra eyes to make sure you catch all of the issues. Aim for around 3 to 5 people to help evaluate. These can be co-workers, people who use your website, or friends.
To evaluate your website, each person should separately go through the pages (or processes) individually using the list of 10 heuristics. For each heuristic, the evaluator should rate the severity of any issues and record details of how and where they occur (I've included a heuristic evaluation template you can use). Encourage all evaluators to elaborate beyond "I don't like that" explanations of the issues they notice. Let each evaluator spend as much time evaluating your website as they want so that they can really get a feel for it and possibly notice issues that might not be obvious.
Once everyone has finished evaluating your website on their own, have everyone get together to discuss the evaluations. Don't discount issues only found by one person–-they may actually be important, but less obvious issues. From this discussion, you can begin to determine the issues which require immediate attention and those that are less important (consider these from the perspective of the people who will actually use your website).
I'm including a download on this page of a PDF template you can use when doing heuristic evaluations. If your website is large or includes a few involved processes, you might want to use a whole copy of the template for each page or process. This is just a reference, so feel free to revise it to your liking.
Nielson's Heuristics:• Visibility of system status: Your website should always keep users informed about what is going on by providing appropriate feedback within reasonable time. Does your website provide progress indicators for actions that take longer to execute? When a user presses a button and nothing happens is it obvious why?
• Match between system and the real world: Your website should speak the language of the people who will be using it and present information in a natural and logical order. Does your website use jargon, words, phrases, or concepts that most people won't understand? Do you employ a unique layout that people have to "learn" to use?
• User control and freedom: Your website should allow people to navigate anywhere without extra hassle and support undo and redo (back and forward) functions. Can users get trapped in areas of your website if they make the wrong turn? Does your website support using the Back button on a browser?
• Consistency and standards: Be consistent about the words, situations, and actions you use throughout your website. Try to employ conventions people will be familiar with. Does your website alternate between two words to describe the same action? Do people have to spend extra time figuring out a unique feature?
• Error prevention: You should design your website to prevent someone using it from even running into a problem. Are the forms on your website "smart" enough to only accept valid content before announcing an error?
• Recognition rather than recall: People using your website should not be asked to remember or write down information to perform a later task, your website should for them. Are there places where you have to push the Back button to remember information you need? Do you need to keep multiple tabs of your website open to get through a process?
• Flexibility and efficiency of use: If your website contains some advanced features, someone who is a novice user should be able to complete a basic task without having to learn them, but have the option to if they would like to. Do you provide tools on your website that might confuse first-time users? Can experienced users locate advanced features when they want them?
• Aesthetic and minimalist design: The design of your website should reflect your brand without being overwhelming to the people using it. Just enough is more. Do people have trouble reading information on your website because of distracting elements? Are you emphasizing important elements and de-emphasizing less pertinent ones?
• Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: Your website should make it easy for people to correct their mistakes. Do people have to repeat entire processes if they make a mistake? Do the error messages you provide make sense to people?
• Help and documentation: Aim for people to be able to use your website without help, but provide extra materials they can consult if they please and make it easy to search and understand. Do people have to constantly call you for help? Does the documentation you provide include simple steps? Is it written using language the people using your website will understand?
For more detailed information on heuristic evaluations and other discount usability methods, useit.com has a wealth of detailed information.