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User Interface Heuristics…10? Seriously?

We have an intern now – and interns tend to ask the darndest questions. Some are of the “Where can I hang my coat?” variety. While others go deeper. Much deeper.

She seemed to be completely frustrated with Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design. Her question: why are there so many? (She even called a few redundant! Blasphemy!)  Did we really need all 10? Couldn’t you combine a few of them and be done with it?

…The thing that bothered me was that on one hand, she wasn’t wrong. Or more precisely, she isn’t wrong today. We took the time to go through each of the heuristics. As I read each heuristic aloud, I recalled multiple examples of how 20 years ago (roughly when the heuristics reached popularity) these heuristics… were not so obvious. Let me rephrase that. Perhaps they were obvious, but they weren’t being practiced.

I recalled examples of expensive business software that had missing help functionality. Easy accessibility of back-door settings that could ‘break’ the system – and cryptic codes to remember later on for one task that was linked to the next… the list went on. I gained a new appreciation for both Nielsen’s heuristics as well as how far the UX industry has come. Sometimes when you are immersed in the day-to-day of user experience, you forget how things used to be – or why certain things needed to be explicitly stated. Some of these are second nature to most modern user interface developers out there… but there was a time when this was all new. When things are new, you need to be explicit. Almost all of Neilsen’s heuristics follow the formula of “What” and then “How”. As the new member of our team, I am hoping she can somewhat identify with that.

Of course by the time two weeks have gone by I’m sure our new intern will also be tired of our own company ‘heuristics’ and well on her way to combining, condensing, and streamlining our own processes… and I’ll like that. A lot. Its fun to remember the good old days, but its even more fun to work with modern user interfaces and enjoy a satisfying user experience.

Here’s to progress… and interns.

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