It is called heuristic evaluation and it is a method developed in the 1990s by the Danish computer scientist Jakob Nielsen to simplify the search for website usability problems: if applied effectively, its principles can help us in identifying and solving the burdens that hamper our eCommerce and reach the desired goal, which is to quickly increase sales.

What is the heuristic evaluation

Nielsen is known for his attention to the issue of the usability of both websites and applications (as well as for his battles against the use of Flash technology or other heavy elements on sites) and in 1994 he drafted a decalogue that remains a reference in the industry.

Its heuristic evaluation method is a collection of usability guidelines, applicable to any interface, which serve to create products and services that reflect the main standards in the field and thus ensure the best user experience for visitors to the site.

The expression refers to the heuristic term that is proper to philosophy and the scientific method: the word comes from the Greek verb that means to discover or to search, and is used to indicate “a set of strategies, techniques and inventive procedures to search for a suitable topic, concept or theory to solve a given problem”.

Applications on the eCommerce

In a context where time is essential, being able to solve usability problems by conducting an effective heuristic evaluation means being able to turn our online store around and improve sales almost immediately.

Thanks to these principles we will discover the main problems that undermine the site as they make the lives of customers complicated, so much they prefer to turn their attention elsewhere. The advantage is that this health check of the project does not need a long and exhaustive study, because you need to examine every detail but just focus on a general overview of the most known usability factors that affect sales.

Also, the other useful feature of this study is that problems, once identified, are fairly intuitive and simple to solve.

We will not find all the problems and errors of the site, but we will have a new vision and a set of actions to take immediately to turn and improve sales.

How to make a heuristic evaluation study of the eCommerce

There are three steps that guide us to the realization of an effective study on the usability of the site, as suggested by Kayle Larkin on searchenginejournal:

  1. Recruiting
  2. Rating
  3. Analysis

First step: recruitment of evaluators

The work begins by identifying a small group of team members (3 or 5 people) who can participate in the project as site evaluators. They do not need to have specific skills in web design or search engine optimization, more than that, it is good to recruit diverse experiences and skills to have multiple eyes on the matter and better results.

Second step, the evaluation of the site

The practical part begins: each member of the team will have the task of inspecting the website in an independent and autonomous way, so as to ensure the impartiality of each evaluation. We do not have to talk about the progress of the project until the study is complete.

Last step, analysis of results

The last step is the analysis of the results, which we can perform in two different and equally functional methods

  • To register the single evaluator

You need to find a general project manager who collects and live records the evaluator’s comments while interacting with our website. This method increases the overload of each evaluation, but reduces the workload on individual evaluators.

The results will be available quite quickly as the observer only needs to understand and organize his own set of notes.

  • To gather reports written by each evaluator

The second path is longer as it requires the creation of written reports by each participant (which is then asked for an additional effort), that provides a formal recording of the studio. The person in charge of the bill aggregates all the notes, thus creating a final report.

Usability principles

Now we come to the practical part of the heuristic evaluation, referring to the methodology developed by Jakob Nielsen more than a quarter of a century ago now. The Danish computer scientist has outlined 10 general rules which can describe the common properties of the various usable interfaces, that we may use as guidelines to add further considerations on the user experience that come to mind during the evaluation of the individual website.

These principles also apply to online sales sites and, as we will see, they are not too far from the ecommerce optimization techniques that we had seen not long ago.

  1. Feedback

Technically referred to as “visibility of the system state“, is an invite to keep users informed about what is happening: every person on the site should, at any time, know what area is located, at which stage of the purchase process and what you need to do to proceed. Specifically, eCommerces can take care of this by intervening on:

  • Clear and recognizable logo in the header.
  • Description of the value proposal.
  • Clear Call to actions.
  • Clearly marked shop.
  • Easy navigation options to follow.
  • Checkout viewable from all pages.
  • Easy-view cart
  • Progressive counting of products in the cart.
  • Indication of the total value of the purchase.
  1. Contact with the real world

Nielsen invites us to verify and take care of the system’s correspondence with the real world, that is, to use the user’s language and words, sentences and concepts that may be familiar to him. Moreover, even the flow of online shopping sites should reflect the scenarios of the physical world, and so you have to:

  • Use a user-centred language.
  • Use a useful and descriptive language.
  • Do not use any slang.
  • Make the images scroll from right to the left.
  • Recreate the virtual experience offered in the store.
  1. Freedom

Users need a clearly marked “emergency exit” when they click on an item by mistake; in practical terms, we must allow operations to be reversed and restored so to give customers freedom and control over what they are doing. Other specific suggestions are:

  • Enter product reviews before checkout.
  • Ability to easily remove items at checkout.
  • Possibility to change quantity at checkout.
  • Possibility to change the type/color of the product at checkout.
  • Possibility to cancel or modify the orders after the purchase.
  1. Cohesion and consistency

The conventions of the system must be valid along the entire interface path, says Nielsen; this means that users should not have the doubt that different words or actions can mean the same thing. For this, we suggest using established standards such as “add to cart” buttons or sliding images to reduce confusion and increase efficiency, and then again:

  • Use recognizable CTAs as “Buy now” or “Add to cart”.
  • Use a basic format or template.
  • Use large images.
  • Insert short product descriptions.
  • Use visual CTAs.
  • Insert reviews at the bottom of the page.
  1. Errors prevention

A careful design can prevent the possibility of an error by users, avoiding the creation of ambiguous or critical situations for customers. Basically, for an eCommerce this applies in:

  • Real-time validation of forms.
  • Simple instructions on how to correct an error.
  • Recommendations for out-of-stock or unavailable products, strategically using 404 error pages for example.
  1. Recognition and memory

The invite is to make objects, actions and options as intuitive as possible, so they can be easy to use and remember. We can use a web design that users already know about (as is the case with Amazon-based models), or avoid requiring users to retrieve information from a previous interaction, and then again, on the practical side:

  • Grid layout.
  • Logo on the top left.
  • Top right cart button.
  • Menu with dropdown categories.
  1. Flexibility

The efficiency of the site increases if users can set preferences and interact with the system in the way most appropriate to them. We can achieve the flexibility of use with some methods:

  • Account creation.
  • Possibility to indicate favourite items.
  • Possibility to save items in a shared list.
  • Possibility to save the delivery information and the chosen payment method.
  • Possibility of payment through multiple systems.
  • Automatic fill-in on payment forms.
  1. Minimalistic design

Nielsen invites us to give more emphasis to the content than to the aesthetics: this means that we must include in the Web page only what is necessary, because any other information element is to attract the attention of the user, which then distracts you from what should be the central message sent by the site. The practical tips are:

  • Use a mobile-friendly design.
  • Limit the visual disorder.
  • Draw attention to the main image.
  • Draw attention to the description.
  1. Support to the user

We all make mistakes and the task of a site is to help the user to recognize, diagnose and recover what has been done. We must then clearly highlight the problem and offer a solution with some steps:

  • Highlight errors in red.
  • Clearly define the error.
  • Offer a solution.
  1. Documentation

Every site, and in particular every eCommerce, must allow the users to find the documentation and to simplify the search of help information, also through the systems of specific assistance. The techniques to apply this principle are simple:

  • Provide easily identifiable and accessible help documentation.
  • Allow contact with customer service.
  • Insert a link to the FAQ in the footer.
  • Insert a set of Q&A (questions and answers) into the product pages.