You are here

Site Usability Heuristics for the Web

This appeared in Web Review, October, 1997. This is part 2. Part 1 is Site Usability Evaluation.

Jakob Nielsen's 10 usability heuristics appear below, with his description in bold and my Web-specific comment following.

The overriding theme for applying these heuristics to the Web is to use links effectively.

1. Visibility of system status

The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

Probably the two most important things that users need to know at your site are "Where am I?" and "Where can I go next?"

Make sure each page is branded and that you indicate which section it belongs to. Links to other pages should be clearly marked. Since users could be jumping to any part of your site from somewhere else, you need to include this status on every page.

My Site Stress Test is an evaluation focused on this heuristic because it is so important on the Web.

2. Match between system and the real world

The system should speak the users' language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.

On the Web, you have to be aware that users will probably be coming from diverse backgrounds, so figuring out their "language" can be a challenge.

3. User control and freedom

Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked "emergency exit" to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.

Many of the "emergency exits" are provided by the browser, but there is still plenty of room on your site to support user control and freedom. Or, there are many ways authors can take away user control that is built into the Web. A "home" button on every page is a simple way to let users feel in control of your site.

Be careful when forcing users into certain fonts, colors, screen widths or browser versions. And watch out for some of those "advanced technologies": usually user control is not added until the technology has matured. One example is animated GIFs. Until browsers let users stop and restart the animations, they can do more harm than good.

4. Consistency and standards

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

Within your site, use wording in your content and buttons consistently. One of the most common cases of inconsistent wording I see deals with links, page titles and page headers. Check the titles and headers for your pages against the links that point to them. Inconsistent wording here can confuse users who think they ended up in the wrong spot because the destination page had a title that differed vastly from the link that took them there.

"Platform conventions" on the Web means realizing your site is not an island. Users will be jumping onto (and off of) your site from others, so you need to fit in with the rest of the Web to some degree. Custom link colors is just one example where it may work well for your site but since it could conflict with the rest of the Web, it may make your site hard to use.

And "standards" on the Web means following HTML and other specifications. Deviations form the standards will be opportunities for unusable features to creep into your site.

5. Error prevention

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

Because of the limitations of HTML forms, inputting information on the Web is a common source of errors for users. Full-featured, GUI-style widgets are on their way; in the meanwhile you can use JavaScript to prevent some errors before users submit, but you still have to double-check after submission.

6. Recognition rather than recall

Make objects, actions, and options visible. The 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.

For the Web, this heuristic is closely related to system status. If users can recognize where they are by looking at the current page, without having to recall their path from the home page, they are less likely to get lost.

Certainly the most invisible objects created on the Web are server-side image maps. Client-side image maps are a lot better, but it still takes very well-crafted images to help users recognize them as links.

Good labels and descriptive links are also crucial for recognition.

7. Flexibility and efficiency of use

Accelerators -- unseen by the novice user -- may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.

Some of the best accelerators are provided by the browser. Like bookmarks.

Make pages at your your site easy to bookmark. If a user is only interested in one corner of your site, make it easy for him to get there. Better that than have him get frustrated trying to get from your home page to what he is looking for.

Do not use frames in a way that prevent users from bookmarking effectively.

Support bookmarking by not generating temporary URLs that have a short lifespan. If every week you come out with a new feature article for your site, make sure your URL lives on, even after the content is taken down. Web Review uses long-term locations by putting date information into the URLs. Or, you could re-use your URLs for the newer content.

Consider using GET instead of POST on your forms. GET attaches the parameters to the URL, so users can bookmark the results of a search. When they come back, they get their query re-evaluated without having to type anything in again.

All of these rules for "design to be bookmarked" also help you design to be linked to. If the contents of your site can easily be linked to, others can create specialized views of your site for specific users and tasks.'s associates program is just one example of the value of being easy to link to.

8. Aesthetic and minimalist design

Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.

Extraneous information on a page is a distraction and a slow-down. Make rarely needed information accessible via a link so that the details are there when needed but do not interfere much with the more relevant content.

The best way to help make sure you are not providing too much (or too little) information at once is to use progressive levels of detail. Put the more general information higher up in your hierarchy and let users drill down deeper if they want the details. Likewise, make sure there is a way to go "up" to get the bigger picture, in case users jump into the middle of your site.

Make sure your content is written for the Web and not just a repackaged brochure. Break information into chunks and use links to connect the relevant chunks so that you can support different uses of your content.

9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors

Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

Errors will happen, despite all your efforts to prevent them. Every error message should offer a solution (or a link to a solution) on the error page.

For example, if a user's search yields no hits, do not just tell him to broaden his search. Provide him with a link that will broaden his search for him.

10. Help and documentation

Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user's task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

Some of the more basic sites will not need much documentation, if any. But as soon as you try any complicated tasks, you will need some help for those tasks.

For the Web, the key is to not just slap up some help pages, but to integrate the documentation into your site. There should be links from your main sections into specific help and vice versa. Help could even be fully integrated into each page so that users never feel like assistance is too far away.