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What Are Heuristics and Why Do They Matter?

What's the first step toward creating a fantastic user experience? If you thought, learning how the user thinks, then you’re right. The first step toward any service or product aimed toward users involves understanding the target audience. In order to do that, learning how heuristics apply is a crucial part.

What are heuristics?

Heuristics are the name given to your brain’s mental reflexes and rapid insights. The human mind can only handle so much information at once, so the brain develops these shortcuts to help you compensate for limitations on time, mental energy, and information. In summary, the mind uses heuristics to simplify decision-making.

Heuristics are created due to prior experiences, and people often give these mental reflexes names such as common sense, intuition, or prejudice. Often practical in nature, heuristics make choices on due to information gathered from prior experiences. But these shortcuts aren’t always optimal. In fact, heuristics are often inflexible toward change.

For example, let’s say you’re walking down the sidewalk, and there’s a broken tree branch hanging above your path. You’ll probably avoid walking under the broken branch since you heard it can be dangerous (sometimes your instincts take this role). You most likely won’t stop and consider the possibility of the branch breaking the exact moment you walk underneath—you simply choose an alternative route and continue onward.

In this case, your instinctive, decision-making process would be a heuristic.

3 Heuristics Important to Psychology

Nobel Prize winner and psychologist Herbert Simon first suggested the idea of heuristics in the 1950s. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman presented research findings on heuristics. Since then, research on heuristics had only continued to expand.

Although countless types of heuristics exists, three main heuristics stand out from the rest.

  • Availability heuristic: makes decisions based on how easily a possible idea comes to mind—the easier something is to recall, the more important our minds make it
  • Representativeness heuristic: compares the “present situation” with a representation from memory, regardless of accuracy
  • Affect heuristic: makes decisions based on our current emotional state

How do heuristics apply to design?

Psychological facts are well and good, but you probably want some practical application. When you identify how people think and what common shortcuts they share, it increases your ability to create directly for your audience.

For example, if you’re an advertiser, and you notice many drivers are taking Road A as a shortcut to work, you might start placing billboards along that route.

As a designer, the same concept applies. If many people navigate a website in a similar way, taking that flow into account during the design process leads to a better user experience (UX).

Usability Heuristics

For designers and UX experts, there is a unique set of heuristics for measuring usability for websites called “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design.” Written in 1995 by leading computer and usability expert Jakob Nielsen, this list of usability heuristics remains evergreen and flourishing within the design sphere. Designers use Nielsen’s heuristics as another tool to use to ensure overall system quality. Just like psychological heuristics are mental shortcuts, design heuristics are benchmarks for designers to refer back to in order to assure usability.

For example, say you’re auditing the usability of a website. It’s important to test the website’s usability to see if you’re hitting the mark according to specific heuristics from Nielsen’s list. In this case, the heuristics become a usability checklist.

The purpose of design heuristics is to reveal how usability is succeeding or failing on your current projects. However, heuristics are not a catch-all. It’s important to validate the validation by testing against users after testing against heuristics. Testing against users remains the best way to determine usability.

The Takeaway

Heuristics are mental shortcuts our minds create in order to best compensate for limited information, knowledge, or time. Design heuristics examine the user experience and recommend the best practices for optimal usability.

If you don’t have the resources or time to research heuristics for augmenting your business, find a design agency and ask their UX expert about including heuristics. The goal? To successfully place your users at the center of the experience.

Need a visual on how it works?

Take a look at how heuristics and great UX go hand in hand.

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