Recently, sharp opinions regarding expert utility audits have appeared in many articles and industry commentaries. Many of them raise the issue of the limited effectiveness of this solution in contrast to the tests with users.
Therefore, the question arises whether there is still a sense in performing audits? To answer them, you first need to define well what an expert usability audit is and is not properly done.
1. Usability audit is not only a verification of the project in terms of heuristics.
There are many collections of heuristics (packages of general principles and good practices), of which the most popular are undoubtedly those introduced by Nielsen and Molich. It is a misconception that only one of these sets should be chosen when performing heuristic analysis. Correct analysis should use many sources of heuristics and norms because in fact, each of them draws attention to different aspects of the product’s functionality. For example, the WCAG 2.0 standard focuses on the accessibility of websites for people with various disabilities, and Gerhard-Powals’s cognitive principles approach usability issues from the point of view of cognitive psychology. Above all, however, contrary to popular belief, heuristic analysis is not synonymous with usability auditing. Audit is definitely a broader concept which, in addition to heuristic analysis, consists of techniques such as primary control of the SEM / SEO campaign and the very often underestimated method of cognitive wandering. Furthermore, a correctly performed audit should include quantitative data, if possible.
2. Usability audit, when possible, uses quantitative data.
A very popular objection raised against usability audits is the fact that an expert conducting it is extremely rarely the target of a tested page or application. Contrary to appearances, this does not mean, however, that the audit is based solely on expert knowledge and opinions. Tools such as Google Analytics allow you to get quite detailed information about website traffic, bounce rate, flows, sources, searches within site, etc. and necessary information about users. Today, their use is becoming increasingly standard. These data allow you to determine the problems on the page objectively and definitely on which parts of the site or what interactions should focus analysis, which is especially important for large sites. In conjunction with thorough business intelligence (another element necessary for proper usability audit), they give insight into how the site is used by its target users. On this basis, an experienced expert is able to reconstruct the problems that customers may encounter.
3. The audit is carried out by a person with extensive experience and knowledge, preferably also related to the given industry.
An expert usability audit is one of the most difficult methods for UX, requiring the most preparation and qualifications. Knowledge of many standards, the ability to critically analyze and draw conclusions from various data sources, but above all, in-depth knowledge of different users and experience in working with them are necessary to correctly identify problems on the site, minimize “false alarms” and skipped issues. Unfortunately, such skills come with time, after many years of work. Moreover, for specialized products, preparation for a given industry is also required. Therefore, commissioning audits to trainees or juniors, just starting their work at UX, is a serious mistake that can actually significantly reduce the effectiveness of this method. It is called the EXPERT usability audit for a reason. For the same reason, it is also not possible to conduct a utility audit by the client himself, although it is extremely tempting due to the apparent ease of this technique and ready sets of standards, heuristics and even multi-element and detailed checklists available on the Internet. It should be remembered that these collections are only some guidelines that can be interpreted in different ways depending on the specifics of a given product, they do not take into account its individual needs, and, as it was previously indicated, the audit is not limited to heuristic analysis. However, it is not the purpose of this article to put an expert and his knowledge on a pedestal, because even the most experienced specialist is only human and can skip important elements.
4. A usability audit is always the result of the work of at least two people.
The problem of “false alarms”, bypassing important issues or following your own tastes and opinions in usability audits, will always exist, and none, even the best UX, will be able to eliminate it completely. It simply results from the subjectivity of human perception. Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this issue that is also happily becoming more and more popular in the industry. Until recently, most of the audits performed were the work of one person who alone carried out all the steps from heuristic analysis, starting from the presentation to the client. This approach is particularly vulnerable to errors of all kinds due to objectivity. Therefore, one of the most important criteria for assessing the usability audit is the question of how many people participated in the process of creating it. It is also worth noting here that participation in creating an audit does not only mean reviewing the finished version of the report and adding your comments. To be able to say that the audit is properly carried out, it should be composed of several independent expert reports submitted in a single statement. Only in this way can we ensure the impartiality of opinions.
So is it worth conducting usability audits? It can be clearly seen that many of the allegations raised against usability audits are simply due to their misunderstanding. Poorly performed usability audits are undoubtedly ineffective, while properly performed can play an extremely important role in website and application optimization projects. It still makes sense to use audits. You just need to know how.