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Usability heuristics by Jakob Nielsen - part 1

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Heuristic analysis is a method of assessing interfaces that aims to identify problems in their usability. Jakob Nielsen has developed 10 usability heuristics that describe the elements and principles of interface design that often generate errors.

In this article, I’ll describe the first five heuristics.

Heuristics 1. Show system status

1. Heuristics: Nielsen says that the system should always inform users about what is happening through appropriate feedback within a reasonable time.


Process transparency helps users correctly understand their tasks. This allows users to make the right decisions.

Interaction with a system should be understood as a process or a series of related processes that are predetermined (e.g., use of a form, ordering a product, sending an email). Moving around the system, the user asks two basic questions: where am I, and what is happening now?

A good example of informing the user about the place and status of the system is the application form on the website of the medical company kcrcro.com designed by The Story.

Where am I?

First of all, always inform the user of the place/section of the system. By using breadcrumbs, the user knows they are in the "join our team" section and that they are applying as an "investigator."

What's happening?

The second element is navigation during detailed processes. Our user can see the six-level navigation bar. The game of colors informs them that they are on 2 of the 6 steps.

In the online store, a similar mechanism may inform the user that they have placed some items in their basket, but they still have to choose the form of delivery and make the payment.

This screen has another important functionality. It allows the user to select a set of variables and, most importantly, informs them which variables they have chosen and provides an easy opportunity to change decisions.

 Website navigation scheme on the example of the kcr medical company's website

Example taken from kcrcro.com by The Story

The solutions discussed above, inspired by J. Nielsen's first heuristics, keep the user informed about their choices on an ongoing basis. Moreover, the user has control over the process in which they participate.

Meeting the standards resulting from the first heuristics is the basic condition for the user to have a satisfactory interaction with the system.

Heuristics 2. Maintain consistency between the system and reality

The system should be written in the user's language, using words, phrases, and concepts known to the user, not system-oriented terms.

Follow real conventions and present information in a natural and logical order.


One of the most basic principles of user-oriented design is understanding their thinking and context of use. We must remember that we are not the users for whom we design.

You are not the user!

Nielsen's second heuristics indicates the need to conduct research on our users.

User language

The use of language in an application that’s adapted to the user has a positive effect on its functionality on several levels.

First, natural language allows you to understand the website's content quickly. Thanks to this, users identify the site as the place that meets their needs.

Second, remember that users scan a website for important information/keywords. If these words are well chosen – are natural for the user, the chance of keeping them there for longer increases significantly. If not, the visit will last a matter of seconds.

The language's naturalness is also important for SEO. Users will use search terms for our site that are the same as the keywords used in the search engine.

It also works the other way around. The occurrence of relevant terms on a website likens its position in the context of searching for a specific entry.

User World

We can help users find our site by following generally known and intuitive standards in design. I refer here to the principles of web application design and more generic cultural norms.

It is customary for the top left corner of the pages to be reserved for the website's logo. Such an obvious principle comes from the convention of reading from left to right. In right-to-left languages, the logo is shown on the right.

We see this difference clearly when using the Polish and Hebrew Spotify start pages as an example. Both sites contain the same content, but the Hebrew layout is a mirror image of the left-to-right version.

Polish and Hebrew Spotify start pages comparison

Heuristics 3. Give the user full control

Users often choose functions by mistake, so they need a clearly marked "emergency exit" to leave an unwanted subpage without having to go through a lengthy dialogue. Remember the "undo" and "redo" options.


Sometimes users get lost or go a step too far. Let's remember the facilities that allow you to move freely between different system levels.

We can't be sure that the user knows how they got to where they are now, and even if they may, they probably want to avoid repeating the whole process from the beginning.

Therefore, by adding the "undo" option, we will improve the comfort of the user, who does not have to follow the path from the beginning, and secondly, increase his control over the interaction with the site, which positively affects the level of satisfaction.

Online stores in the implementation of Nielsen's third heuristics are guided by the maxim "the customer comes first.". By providing full freedom in navigating the site, we also offer comfort to the user. If we make it easier for them to choose a product and place it in their basket, we must ensure they can remove it just as easily. The last thing we want is for the user to solve this problem by closing the card.

Subpage view of the basket on the Amazon website

A good example of how to apply this principle in practice is the construction of the Cart subpage at Amazon.com

The user who has decided what they want to buy on the product's subpage is further stimulated in the basket by as many as three fields, giving the opportunity to increase the order (marked in yellow).

On the other hand, users can easily remove products from the basket or reduce the number of products ordered.

The user has full control over the selection of products.

Heuristics 4. Stick to standards and maintain internal consistency

Users should not wonder if different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow the standards of your platform.


The fourth heuristics of Nielsen refers to the internal coherence of the system. The principle applies especially to large systems where many people are involved in the design process.

We cannot allow a situation where a user has made an effort to learn the terminology/functioning of our platform and felt discomfort associated with suddenly coming across a different standard.

internal consistency

Format consistency

Correct design must be based on consistent standards that will allow the user to learn and understand how to navigate our site easily. It depends on our design decisions whether the user finds themself in the "world" of the system we have created.

It’s about creating standards that ensure internal consistency.

The first step to creating an internally coherent ecosystem is to develop standards, both in terms of graphics and terminology.

Graphic consistency

From the branding point of view, identification should be characteristic and distinguishable from the market environment. That is why we focus on more elementary principles of coherent design in this heuristics, such as universal link designation, CTA, text structures, etc. However, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

Generally accepted standards should be used for a very simple reason. Users spend most of their time on other websites. In this way, they get used to generally accepted solutions.

Users spend most of their time on other sites.

Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience

Steven Krug, in the book "Don't make me think," is part of the narrative of Jacob Nielsen, but allows the possibility of introducing a new solution, but only on one condition – the new solution must be much better in terms of functionality and be easy to assimilate.

How to create standards?

  1. First, describe them with examples. In the instructions, it’s worth using an image that often speaks better to people, especially designers, than a description.
  2. Prepare a checklist of standards to be met by the proposed solution.
  3. Remember to check compliance of new projects with the developed standards.
  4. When designing, remember about generally accepted standards.

Heuristics 5. Prevent mistakes

Users are often distracted when performing a task. Prevent unconscious mistakes by suggesting, applying limitations, and being flexible.


Designing interactive systems requires a lot of humility. The most outstanding authors in the field of UX point out that the person responsible for user errors is primarily a designer who did not ensure that they solved all possible problems.

There are several general principles that, when followed, help to make the system immune to the most common errors.

  • First, when surfing the web, users mainly use short-term memory. Therefore, we should create systems in a way that they store as much data as possible for our users. So the performance of tasks on our site requires them to confirm the correctness of information rather than remembering and entering it.
  • Secondly, ask users to confirm the deletion of items. Regardless of whether they will be photos, applications, or other elements, the user should be additionally informed about the scope of changes made (e.g., highlighting/counting deleted photos) and their consequences (e.g., no possibility of restoring or keeping in the bin for 30 days).
  • Current systems allow advanced logical control of data entered by users. It’s worth checking the correctness of the entered data in formal terms and informing where the potential error lies. A good example is grammarly.com. The system checks the grammatical correctness of the text but displays an explanation for each suggested correction.
  • Unfortunately, we cannot predict all system use scenarios, so users will make mistakes. It’s worth supporting the ability to cancel the action. Gmail is a good example, it allows you to cancel sending an email a few seconds after clicking "send."

To understand user errors

The psychologist and UX guru Don Norman distinguishes two types of errors made by users: slips and mistakes. The distinction is important because it refers to different mechanisms of formation. I will describe below what they characterize and how to avoid them.

* Based on the book:
Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, Karakter, 2018


Skip-offs are minor errors/irregularities that occur during a task. They appear when a user wants to perform an action but, as a result, does something different but similar. An example would be missing a letter in the text, email address, or choosing too many/too few products in the basket.

Mistakes are most often the result of running on "autopilot." They happen more often to "experts," i.e., users who know the system well.

How to avoid skip-offs?

The best remedy for missteps that result from haste or lack of attention is to help users achieve the required level of precision and encourage them to check the correctness of the data. To this end, we can:

  • Apply thoughtful restrictions – when purchasing air tickets, we can choose the departure and arrival dates in the calendar. The calendar highlights the selected dates and marks (usually by shading) days between these dates. In this way, the user can, without additional effort, verify the correctness of the length of the stay.
  • Use hints – users do not need to know the exact wording/terminology used on our platform, so use hints. An interesting example is the terminyleczenia.nfz.gov.pl application that allows you to search for the first available medical service date. Medical terminology is not intuitive, so a well-designed search by keyword is a basic element of this interface.
  • Ensure well-thought-out default settings – i.e., tailored to the user's needs and reality. The jakdojade.pl web application remembers the time of the searched connection. The next time you search in the same tab a few hours later, the time does not update by default. As a result, we see results for connections that departed even a few hours earlier.
  • Use thoughtful formatting of fields in forms – the form usually collects information that we can subject to thorough, logical control. Checking is necessary because the data is often entered into the database. The designer's task is to translate the database requirements to the user. Therefore, instructions and error messages should be displayed clearly, accurately, and understandably.

error prevention


Mistakes are a heavier caliber of errors. They appear when the user's goal is not appropriate for the problem or task they’re currently performing. The most common reason is usually incorrect or insufficient information to complete the task. But designers have a potentially significant impact on reducing these types of errors.

A practical example of a mistake is correcting the contact form details in the wrong field.

Let's imagine the system displays an error message in the data but does not provide information about the reason for the error. After the first data check, the desperate user will probably start to come up with a new date or phone number format.

The whole problem stems from an inadequate way of informing the user on how to complete the form.

How to avoid mistakes?

  • First of all, user research should be conducted – errors may result from the designer not understanding how users think about performing a given task. As a result, they design a flow adapted to their own ideas. Having the right knowledge about the user helps match the tool more accurately to the user's perspective.
  • Secondly, generally accepted conventions in design should be used – remember that our users spend most of their time on other websites (Jacob’s Law). This means that we can (and even must!), by using general standards, help users understand how our platform works.
  • We should communicate how to use the system correctly. If we clearly show how the elements of our platform function (e.g., we need to inform about the correct date format/phone number, etc.), users won’t make mistakes, and their correction won’t be frustrating for them.
  • Results preview –  users may not be fully aware of the effect of completing the action. That is why it’s worth creating a visual for the change and asking the user if they’re sure that they want to make it.

Main photo: YouTube/NNgroup

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