Structured software usability evaluation: an experiment in evaluation design

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Faulkner, Laura Lynn

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This research compared the effectiveness of a detailed usability evaluation method and instrument to a traditional overview method. Usability is a distinctive term that includes, for example, ease of use, learnability, supportability of multi-level users, error prevention, feedback, and recovery. Evaluating a product against a set of usability criteria is a technique known in the usability field as a “heuristic evaluation,” during which a usability professional can identify problems before they reach the end user. Heuristic evaluations performed early in a product lifecycle can promote fixes in preproduction phases, rather than more costly testing and implementation phases. In the study, 63 usability professionals performed heuristic evaluations in a 2 x 2 research design to determine the relative effectiveness in revealing usability problems of using traditional versus experimental contemporary heuristics, each paired with an unstructured all-at-once evaluation method, or an experimental structured method. In the latter method, the evaluators were required to use limited sets of heuristics during a given session, with breaks between sessions. The work is an extension of research by Masaaki Kurosu, who developed the Structured Heuristic Evaluation Method (sHEM) for use in Japan, and tested it in a single-factor design. In this present study the heuristic set and evaluation method variables were separated into a two-factor design; Kurosu’s main effect of the contemporary/structured interaction was not replicated. Participants using traditional general heuristics found more usability problems than those using contemporary detailed heuristics. The study’s strongest finding was that the structured approached rendered the participants more effective at identifying usability problems, even when individual participants found the approach “disconcerting” or “distracting.” Results are congruent with the psychological phenomenon of retroactive interference: by interrupting the evaluation at intervals, participants were able to “forget” previous sections, freeing up working memory to find more usability problems in subsequent sections. Implications of the practical applications of these results to the usability field are discussed.





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