Heuristic Evaluation of Human Interactions

Have you ever wondered how it would be to do a heuristic evaluation on human interactions? Which usability problems would we find in those interactions (as opposed to interfaces) between people?

Let’s find out what happened when I examined how compliant different human interactions were with recognized usability principles* (the “heuristics”).

First I list the heuristic and its definition. Then I illustrate the human interaction and which usability issues were found.

1. Visibility of system status. Always keep users informed about what is going on. Provide appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

Example: Kate and Bill are already late for a dinner party. Bill is becoming impatient because Kate is taking too long to get ready. He tried asking her whether she was ready, but she did not reply. So he tries to guess, by looking at her, whether she’s almost done.

Judging by the feedback (seeing Kate dressed), Bill concludes that she’s ready. Then he acts on that feedback by getting his keys and heading towards the door (getting ready to leave).

However, he gets in trouble with Kate because she’s not ready yet. Now she feels that he’s hurrying her up. She thinks to herself “Can’t he just tell that I’m not ready yet?”

2. User control and freedom. Users often choose system functions by mistake. Provide a clearly marked “out” to leave an unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.

Example (from #1). Wouldn’t it be great if Bill had a way to undo his action of taking the car keys and heading out the door? Could he have a way “out” without having to go through an extended dialogue with Kate?

Suggestion: Maybe Kate can give him the “out” by saying “Oh, did you forget something in the car, honey? You can go get it, no problem. I’m not ready yet.”

3. Consistency and standards. Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.

Example: Peter wants to go out with his friends and asks Mary about it.

Peter: “Is it OK for me to go get some drinks with the guys this weekend?”

Mary: “Sure, have LOTS of fun” (with arms crossed and in an angry tone)

Peter: I’m confused. Are you sure it’s OK to go?

4. Error prevention. Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place.

Example: Pam gets a text from Steve asking her to get apples for the pie he’s baking. Pam stops by the store on her way home from work. Here is what happened when Pam got home:

Pam: Hi! Here are the apples you wanted.

Steve: Oh, no. You got Red Delicious and I needed Granny Smith apples.

Pam: How was I supposed to know?

Steve: Don’t you know that I always use Granny Smiths for pies?

Pam: No.

Suggested Fix: If Steve wants to comply with this heuristic, he needs to ask Pam for this next time: “Please bring me Granny Smith apples.”

5. Recognition rather than recall. Make objects, actions, and options visible. User should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

Example: Jenny knows that Tom has a hard time remembering their anniversary date. So, instead of asking him whether he knows the date, she emails him a multiple choice question. And she adds a heart sign next to the correct answer (just a little hint to help him remember).

As a bonus, she also adds the link for him to order her favorite flowers and a box of chocolates. Why have him remember that too? Tom does a fabulous job celebrating their anniversary thanks to Jenny following this heuristic.

6. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors. Expressed in plain language (no codes). Precisely indicate the problem. Constructively suggest a solution.

Example from Peter and Mary’s dialogue (from #3):

Peter: I’m confused. Are you sure it’s OK to go?

(if Mary applies principle 6)

Mary: No, it’s not OK. I’ll miss you. We spend many hours at work during the week. Saturday night is the only time we get to spend together. You already went out for drinks with them last Saturday. How about you alternate? One Saturday with me and one with your friends?

Peter: Oh, I see. Sorry I hadn’t realized this before. Thanks for pointing it out.

Peter knows the solution and recovered from his error = Happy Ending :)

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*I used the “Heuristic Evaluation” template created by Rutgers University for the definitions.

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