At Catalyst Group, our user experience design and research teams are constantly working together to fine-tune processes to better meet the needs of our clients.  When a client comes to us with a project with a specific focus on research, for example, we look to our toolbox for opportunities to increase the efficiency and impact of the research activity.

First, we get a sense of the larger picture: what we are testing, who it was designed for, how they might use it, what the timeline for the project looks like, and so forth. The Catalyst teams also review the current design and structure, the main goals of research and other factors to determine what activities will produce the best results. With this information, our researchers and designers collaborate to put together a custom plan that will address all of the specifications discussed.

By analyzing an interface that’s going to be tested, the designers can often quickly identify usability flaws. In a recent project, the site’s use of color made links difficult to see. Additionally, the layout wasn’t optimized for mobile. These are just a few examples of elements that could either be fixed prior to testing or could drive the focus of our user research.

If it appears that there are multiple glaring usability concerns, we recommend starting with a heuristic analysis (also known as an expert review) to pinpoint and fix some of these issues before testing with users. This is one of the best ways to optimize our research time.

When major issues are not fixed before user research, typically a great deal of time is spent reviewing pain points that had already been identified. By conducting a heuristic analysis and making those updates up-front, we are able to get into the more nuanced concerns that are best understood by speaking with users.

Conducting a heuristic analysis before research serves two purposes:

1. It allows us to identify issues that can be addressed before the user research begins. Typically there are a few simple updates that can be made to improve the interface’s user experience. By updating the product to adhere to best practices in usability, we are able to eliminate time that would otherwise be spent discussing those issues during a research session.

2. It helps us to identify areas to focus on during the research sessions. At the beginning of all research projects, we ask our clients to walk us through the design we’ll be testing. With this, we learn what the client is most interested in focusing on. By also conducting a heuristic analysis, we’re able to pinpoint potential problem areas where users may struggle or find that their needs are not met. This extra level of analysis allows us to create an even better test plan that not only concentrates on tasks and features that are important to the client, but considers additional elements that may disrupt the larger design system.

We start the heuristic analysis by evaluating the interface from the perspective of a design expert. Here we apply design best practices to uncover issues related to things such as button spacing, link visibility and text readability.

Next, we reevaluate the site from the perspective of one or more relevant user types. In analyzing a hospital website, for example, we might observe the process of a potential patient finding a new doctor. Or, for a financial information site, we might look at how an analyst would use search and browse tools to piece together information for a report. In reviewing a design from the user perspective, we uncover problems around labeling, content organization, ease of use and task completion.

Ultimately, we combine all of these different use cases and perspectives into a report. The report highlights what’s working within the current experience and what could be improved within the current experience. The report also makes recommendations for completing said improvements. A heuristic analysis report will comment on the following elements of an experience:

  • The information architecture of the design system, including structure and labeling;
  • The layout and visual design;
  • Interface elements and interactivity, which includes things such as forms, buttons, and other UI patterns;
  • Whether appropriate help and feedback mechanisms are in place;
  • Whether the site establishes trust and credibility;
  • The usefulness and usability of the site as a whole.
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