Persona-led heuristic inspection is here

older woman sitting at computerLast week, a sell-out crowd made their way to Oyster Partners to hear Ginny Redish talk about her recent work at a meeting of the UK chapter of the Usability Professionals’ Association.

Ginny’s talk ranged widely across content and the web. Just picking out a few examples, we learned:

  • about a linguistic perspective on how users react to content (including a fun exercise that challenged our artistic abilities);
  • how blind users react to the ‘click here’ style of linking (with frustration); and
  • how using colour alone can flummox users with low vision who change those colours.

But the bit that I want to concentrate on here is the variation on heuristic inspection that she presented.

Why do we need a new way of doing heuristic inspections?

‘Heuristics’, otherwise known as ‘rules of thumb’, are guidelines for good design. It’s always been attractive to think: why go to all that complication of recruiting users and getting them to test our products when we could just have a good look at it ourselves? And so the idea of ‘heuristic inspection’ was born, and popularised by Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich.

You select the heuristics of your choice and then you review your product to see if it breaks any of the rules.

The trouble is that heuristic inspection often isn’t very successful. For example, Rolf Molich now says: “Heuristic inspections are cheap, simple to explain, and deceptively simple to execute. However, I don’t use this method very often and I don’t recommend it to my clients. In my opinion, the idea that anyone can conduct a useful heuristic inspection after a crash course is rubbish. The results from my studies showed that inexperienced inspectors working on their own often produce disastrous amounts of ‘false alarms’. ” (

Another problem is that heuristic inspection is based solely on opinions. No one has given me a good answer to the question that I’ve heard several times from disbelieving designers: “Why are your opinions better than mine?” I think that’s an excellent question, particularly knowing that users often prove me wrong whenever my heuristic predictions are put to a real usability test.

But here’s the dilemma: sometimes we need to review a product for usability in circumstances where usability testing isn’t an option. Lack of time, lack of budget, unwilling client: you name it. So an improvement on the heuristic inspection would be a great idea.

Persona-led heuristic inspection

Ginny introduced us to a new method of doing heuristic inspection that she has developed with Dana Chisnell ( They’d done a lot of usability testing for AARP, the USA organisation for people over 50.

But this time, AARP wanted a review of 50 sites, and they wanted it in time scales that made it impossible to run enough usability tests. So Ginny and Dana turned to personas for inspiration. Fortunately, AARP had a thoroughly-researched set of personas that described key segments of their audience. So Ginny and Dana chose two of them, and then visited the selected sites from the point of view of each of the personas.

They reviewed each site as one of the personas, and took notes as if the persona had performed a ‘think aloud’ commentary on it.

Then they went back and reviewed the pages visited and the comments to see if the site had conformed to or violated any of the heuristics.

Why is the new method better?

Ginny explained that their method applies the heuristics more intensively than a simple checklist approach would do. “Sometimes we found that some pages in a website did pretty well on a heuristic, while other pages did poorly. If you just looked at a couple of pages in the site to see if it conformed, you’d miss the issues.”

She also confirmed that usability testing is still her preferred technique. “But if you need to get a lot of data quickly, then this is one way to get a start on it.”

This article first appeared in usability News

Image, Computer Class, by New Jersey Library, creative commons