The 11th Usability Heuristic

March 22, 2016
Posted by in Brain bites: 2 min insights

You may know the 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design; they’re nearly 20 years old and still a powerful toolkit for thinking about user experience design.

What are the 10 Usability Heuristics?

  1. Visibility of system status
  2. Match between system and the real world
  3. User control and freedom
  4. Consistency and standards
  5. Error prevention
  6. Recognition rather than recall
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
  9. Help users recognise, diagnose, and recover from errors
  10. Help and documentation

However, a bazillion user testing sessions have lead me to conclude that there is a significant omission when relating these heuristics to contemporary digital products: System Response.

Visibility of system status touches on this issue by recommending that: The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within a reasonable time.

 Good systems even set expectations about system response e.g. ‘85% done’ or ‘Getting 42 of 50 quotes’.


How Expedia address long system response times.

System response: the missing heuristic?

Even though feedback is often provided, which complies with the visibility of system status heuristic, I don’t believe this heuristic is powerful enough to describe the many services I’ve tested where system response is the single greatest user experience issue, for example: 

  • Behaviour: A spinner (e.g. the hour glass) informs the user that something is happening but that spinner seems to spin eternally
    Result: The user thinks it’s knackered and starts to click about, often clicking the ‘back’ button
  • Behaviour: A button is touched/clicked and displays a mouse down state but nothing else happens
    Result: The user thinks it’s knackered and starts to click about, often clicking the ‘back’ button
  • Behaviour: A page loads a few elements in, then seems to stall
    : The user thinks it’s knackered and starts to click about, often clicking the ‘back’ button

This is a convoluted issue because system response is usually a technical problem with a technical fix and the above heuristics deal largely with interaction design issues and interaction design fixes. 

That said, customers don’t give a fig about technical constraints so I think it fitting that we add system response to our user experience toolkit. Rather than modify the above heuristics, I would recommend adding this.

 System Response: Slow systems, regardless of ‘visibility of system status’ cues, are frequently interpreted as failing systems. Continual and heroic efforts should be made to reduce a system’s response time.

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