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What exactly is a UX review? Do we need it?

By Ildikó Tuck,
Ildikó Tuck
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Lately, I’ve received a few questions about what a user experience review / heuristic review or evaluation / UX expert review is and isn’t and when it’s a good idea to have one. I thought I’d share a few of the questions and answers on what it is, what you can expect from it and roughly what sort of commitment it requires from a businesses’ viewpoint.

So, what is it?

Let’s start with the common element in all three of the above-mentioned names for it. Yes, it’s a review. It evaluates an existing system against best-practices in the industry. It is performed by an expert in user experience design or Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and results in a report with key findings and action items that you can use to improve your product. It’s a so-called “inspection method” because it doesn’t involve users but it is based on principles derived from watching users interact with online systems. It results in a list of issues found and ranked by severity - usually a scale of 5 (minor, low, moderate, high, critical), but some UX designers use a different system.

What it isn’t...

It’s not a list of a UX professionals glorified likes and dislikes. It won’t say XY “likes/doesn’t like this feature” and “xy thinks you should move that over there to make it prettier”. Instead, it is based on principles called “heuristics”. Heuristics are guidelines, best practices that are open to interpretation depending on what system they’re being used for, rather than hard-and-fast rules to follow which may differ depending on trends. The most commonly used heuristics list is the one written by Jakob Nielsen. It’s over two decades old, and yet still very relevant. How can a list that old be relevant to modern-day web design? Well, because it is based on human psychology and behaviour - all those things that won’t change as long as we, humans, interact with a system. Sure, our expectations have been shaped by technology - a 5 second wait time to load a page was considered fast back in 1995 and it drives most of us insane nowadays, but the heuristic still stands: “The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.” The definition of what is ‘reasonable time’ changed, but the guideline hasn’t.

When is it a good idea to have a UX review? Are they suited for my business?

Let’s say you have any sort of existing system that is being used by people and you don’t necessarily want to replace it. Or you might have a system that is performing okay; not quite as well that you thought it would, but good enough that you wouldn’t want to allocate resources towards a more in-depth user research method. Or, another scenario is when you have a system that isn’t performing well, you’ve already decided that you will replace it. The new one is in the works, however, it’ll take 6+ months to launch. A UX review of the old system might still worth it in this case, because it can identify quick wins, improvements that can be made with minimal effort. These improvements could help you retain more customers until the brand new version can be launched.

What are the scenarios it is not suited for?

Other than the opposite of the above, heuristic reviews are not suited to give you any sort of new solution or idea for an interface challenge that you are facing. So, if you have a step-by-step shopping cart design but are considering transitioning to a one-page checkout model, the UX review will not tell you whether you should or shouldn’t. All the improvements suggested during an evaluation will be incremental, tweaking the existing interface, not re-visiting the core interaction design patterns chosen by the designers of the system. They’re also limited in usefulness if you have a very niche product that requires advanced technical knowledge - because the UX designer isn’t a subject matter expert, there might be issues that aren’t correctly identified because of lack of expertise in the field itself.

We’re too busy to deal with this now. Does it require a lot of attention on our end?

One of the advantages of UX reviews is that they are one of the least expensive usability methods you can get. Assuming that you are in one of the above situations, a UX review can be completed with minimal interaction from the business’ side. All you need to do is provide your UX designer with a link to the system that you’d like to evaluate, sit back and wait for the report a few days later. Once you receive the recommendations, you can decide on what you’d like to address and when. The quick wins alone are usually worth it.

Ultimately, what's the benefit for the company?

I've mentioned the guidelines (heuristics) and that they are based on research. Having a product that is compliant with heuristics doesn't necessarily mean that it has the best possible user experience it can have. The reason these guidelines exist and they are so popular is because they address the core issues people have with using online systems. Having these issues addressed leads to happier users who are more likely to stay loyal to your brand and your online product.

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