UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 514 April 9, 2010

Are You Designing or Inspecting?

Guidelines and heuristics are not interchangeable, but many UXers treat them that way. It’s common to hear someone saying that they’re doing a heuristic evaluation against X guidelines. But it doesn’t quite work like that.

“Let’s check this against the Nielsen guidelines for intranets,” she said. We were three quarters of the way through completing wireframes for a redesign. We had spent four months doing user research, card sorting, prototyping, iterating, and testing (a lot). At the time, going back to the Nielsen Norman Group guidelines seemed like a really good idea. “Okay,” I said. “I’m all for reviewing designs from different angles.”

There were 614 guidelines.

This was not a way to check designs to see if this team had gone in the right design direction. Designing is an act of creation, whether you’re doing research, drawing on graph paper, or coding CSS. Inspecting is an act of checking, of examining, often with some measure in mind.

Guidelines are statements of direction. They’re about looking to the future and what you want to incorporate in the design. Guidelines are aspirational, like these:

  • Add, update, and remove content frequently.
  • Provide persistent navigation controls.
  • Index all intranet pages.
  • Provide org charts that can be viewed onscreen as well as printed.[1]

Heuristics challenge a design with questions. The purpose of heuristics is to provide a way to “test” a design in the absence of data and primary observation by making an inspection. Heuristics are about enforcement, like these:

Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on…
Match between system and the real world
The system should speak the users' language…
User control and freedom
The system should provide a clearly marked "emergency exit" to leave the unwanted state…[2]

Creating or diagnosing?

Heuristics are often cast as pass/fail tests. Does the UI comply or not? While you could use the usability.gov guidelines to evaluate website designs, they were developed as tools for designing. They present things to think about as teams make decisions during their creative process.

Both guidelines and heuristics are typically broad and interpretable. They’re built to apply to nearly any interface. But they come into play at different points in a design project. Guidelines are things to think about in reaching a design; they are considerations and can interact with one another in interesting ways. Heuristics are usually diagnostic and generally don’t interact. But they might.

Don’t design by guidelines alone

On the intranet project, we looked at guidelines about homepages. One directive says to put the most important new information on the homepage, and the next one says to include key features and company news on the homepage. A third says to include tools with information that changes every day. But earlier in the list of guidelines, we see a directive to be “judicious about having a designated ‘quick links’ area.” Guidelines may feel complementary to one another or some may seem to cancel others out. Taken together, there’s a set of complex decisions to make just about the homepage.

And it was too late on our intranet to pay attention to every guideline. The decisions had been made, based on stakeholder input, business requirements, and technology constraints, as well as user requirements. Though we were thoughtful and thorough in designing, anyone scoring our site against the guidelines might not give us good marks.

Don’t evaluate by heuristics alone

Likewise, when looking at heuristics such as “be consistent,” there’s a case for conducting usability tests with real users. For example, on the intranet I was working on, one group in the client company was adamant about having a limited set of page templates, with different sections of the site meeting strict requirements for color, look, and feel. But in usability testing, participants couldn’t tell where they were in the site when they moved from section to section.

Guidance versus enforcement

What are you looking for at this point in your design project? In the intranet project, we were much closer to an evaluative mode than a creation mode (though we did continue to iterate). We needed something to help us measure how far we had come. Going back to the guidelines was not the checkpoint we were looking for.

We sallied forth. The client design team decided instead to create “heuristics” from items from the user and business requirements lists generated at the beginning of the project, making a great circle and a thoughtful cycle of research, design, and evaluation.

I don’t know whether the intranet we designed meets all of the guidelines. But users tell us and show us every day that it is easier, faster, and better than the old intranet. For now, that’s enough of a heuristic.



[1]  From Intranet Usability: Design Guidelines from Studies with Intranet Users by Kara Pernice Coyne, Amy Schade, and Jakob Nielsen

[2]  From Jakob Nielsen's 10 heuristics, see http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_list.html


User Profile

Dana has helped hundreds of people make better design decisions by giving them the skills to gain knowledge about users. She's the co-author, with Jeff Rubin, of Handbook of Usability Testing Second Edition. (Wiley, 2008) Visit Dana's website at usabilityworks.net or follow her on Twitter @danachis.

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Analysis paralysis!

"OMG, with our award winning data Nielsen data that costs us $100,000, 614 rules of this and that, and then the Earth, moon, sun, and all the planets align on this day, we will get 1billion visitors sign up. hax0r!

Pfft, I have a four letter word: KISS

Generic guidelines are kind of useless... designers should already know these and incorporate them into designs... no need to double check.

Designs are there to focus on your customers needs (not corporate needs).

Focus on who the customers are, what they require, how they will use the site, and run a/b tests to make sure you have the design nailed to customers requirements.


I am so with you on this. 



  There are also conventions in addition to guidelines and heuristics. An example of a convention is to underline links.

  But a guideline would be to make sure that links all look the same way on your site. It is a rule that you may have internalized to help you make design decisions.

  A heuristic would be a question to evaluate the design element that could be answered Yes/No, such as Are all the links underlined? If not, do links on the site have consistent visual treatment and interaction behavior?

  Not all designers know all those things; not all designers know the differences among them. So they try to apply guidelines to evaluate. That doesn't work -- it's too late to look at guidelines by then.

  So, I actually think that you and I are in agreement. See my previous two articles to find out: 




Analysis paralysis!

"OMG, with our award winning data Nielsen data that costs us $100,000, 614 rules of this and that, and then the Earth, moon, sun, and all the planets align on this day, we will get 1billion visitors sign up. hax0r!

Pfft, I have a four letter word: KISS.

Very strange article. Large part of the job of any interaction designer (UX designer if you prefer) is to - first - know and understand design guidelines and heuristics, and - second - to use that knowledge when designing interfaces and behavior. The guidelines and heuristics are not a checklist that is filled once the design is ready. Exactly the opposite in fact.

Generic guidelines are kind of useless... designers should already know these and incorporate them into designs... no need to double check. müzik dinle