Nielsen Heuristic Principles: What they are and how to apply them

What are the 10 usability heuristics?

It is important to start this article by explaining what the 10 usability heuristics are, well, we can define them as a set of principles that describe the key elements of a usable web design.


These heuristics are widely used in the web design industry to assess the usability of a website, created by renowned usability and user experience expert Jakob Nielsen in 1994.

When we talk about web usability, we mean the ease with which users can navigate and use a website to achieve their goals efficiently and satisfactorily. In other words, a website is usable if it is easy to use, understand and navigate, and if it allows users to perform the tasks they want without encountering obstacles or confusion. As we already saw in an Itequia article on Responsive Web Design.

They are called “heuristics” because they are general rules and not specific usability guidelines. This analysis consists of a series of checks that try to ensure usability and the achievement of objectives, proposing conclusions and proposals for improvement.

Carrying out this heuristic analysis of usability implies that a small group of experts, according to Jacob Nielsen with 5 would be enough, to examine the interface and judge compliance with said usability principles.

What are 10 usability Nielsen heuristic principles?

Let us see below, one by one, the 10 Nielsen heuristic principles:

1 | System health visibility 

The first of the 10 principles, is the visibility of the state of the system. This principle refers to the fact that the user must be informed about the status of the system at all times, including any error or confirmation messages.

Let’s see some examples of this principle:

  • The loading bars of images or file download processes
  • Breadcrumbs or breadcrumbs that show us where we are on the web
  • The indicators of the purchase processes that usually indicate us in which phase we are




2 | Match between the system and the real world

This second principle refers to the fact that the interface must use the language and terminology that the user expects and knows how to use, instead of technical or abstract terms that are difficult to understand or are not familiar to him.

For example, the use of the trash can as a symbol to delete, we know what this icon is for, or at least we can intuit by seeing it.




3 | User control and freedom 

This is a very important principle since we must give users the option to undo or reverse an action, as well as get out of unwanted or unplanned situations.

Some examples of this principle would be:

  • Undo button
  • Give the possibility to edit a Personal Profile




4 | Consistency and standards 

This principle states that the interface used on our website or application must follow the interface design conventions and standards to ensure consistency and user familiarity.

For example:

  • If on your website or application, the navigation menu is located on the left, do not change its location depending on the page you are on, you will drive the user crazy and his experience will not be satisfactory
  • We associate the green buttons with accepting something and the red buttons with canceling. It would never occur to us to put the buttons upside down, because the number of errors that people would make would be enormous and we must make the path easier for the user




5 | Error prevention 

What this principle means to us is very clear, we must take measures to prevent users from making mistakes, and clear and useful error messages must be provided when they occur.

One of the clearest examples is the confirmation of the email address or the password with a double field in the forms.




6 | Recognition instead of memory 

This sixth principle tells us that information and options should be visible and easily accessible to the user, instead of depending on the user’s memory.

The simplest example of this principle can be found in text editors.

With a text editor when you are going to select a font among the thousand that you have installed, it is easier for us to have a preview of the font, instead of having to remember the name of each one of them.




7 | Flexibility and efficiency of use

Flexibility and efficiency of use mean that the interface must be able to adapt to the needs and abilities of the users and allow users to perform tasks quickly if they wish.

A clear example of this is the Google search engine, if you do not have much experience in its use, it is simply write what you want to search for and that’s it. But if you are more expert and hope to find more specific searches, you can use operators within the search engine.




8 | Aesthetic and minimalist design

It is of vital importance that the interface of our website or application is attractive and easy to understand, with a simple and clean design.

Experience tells us that the user expects to find clean sites that load quickly, so it is advisable to remove everything that you consider unnecessary and that does not provide any functionality to our website.


9 | Helps users to recognize, diagnose and recover from errors 

Another of the most important principles to build a usable website.

Error messages should be clear and offer solutions to recover from any problems the user is experiencing.

One of the best-known examples is the 404 error. Most of us know that it is a 404 error but some users do not know what it is, so we must change it or accompany it with a friendlier message such as “Sorry, page not found” and Give it the possibility of exiting with other related pages or an internal search engine so that you can search and do not leave the web.


Help-users-recognize-diagnose-and-recover-from-errors -Principles-Heuristics-Jakob-Nielsen-Itequia


10 | Help and documentation

The last of the heuristic principles offer help and documentation to the user who browses our website or application.

The interface should provide sufficient documentation and help for those users who need more information or support.

There are a wide variety of examples of this principle, such as:

  • FAQs, “Frequently Asked Questions”, frequently asked questions
  • The information or question mark icon near some options
  • Onboarding as soon as you open an application that shows the essentials or a small tutorial on use and navigation




Why should we follow these 10 Nielsen heuristic principles?

There are many new applications under development and conventional products that suffer from poor usability. And most of them would benefit from a heuristic analysis by a single expert.

As a consequence, they would see a huge improvement in their UX without breaking the budget. However, if time and money allow, between 5 and 8 experts seem to be the sweet spot, as this option should reveal most of the usability issues that your app or website suffers from.

It is important to know that compliance with Nielsen’s 10 heuristic principles does not exclude user tests, but as you may have noticed, after reading the article, they allow for detecting “clear” errors before launching any product or service.

Whatever the needs of your project, you can contact us and we will help you design your product or service.

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