skip to main content

Jakob Nielsens Usability Heuristics

Graham Miller Posted by
Jakob Nielsens Usability Heuristics
I recently read Jakob Nielsen's "10 Usability Heuristics" and I was so impressed I wanted to put them here on our blog for you to read.  What's astonishing is that these guidelines were written in 1994, two years before we began building web sites at Edward Robertson.
If you've not heard of him before, Jakob Nielsen is a usability consultant who has been writing about web design, user experience and information architecture since the early nineties.  He's the web's usability guru, and has always had common sense things to say about designing things to be as easy to use as possible.  He had a bit of a run in with those in the responsive web design camp a few years ago, but I think all is forgiven now.
So here are his ten principles for interaction design - the ten commandments of user experience design if you will.  (They are called "heuristics" because they are more rules of thumb than specific usability guidelines. ) 

Visibility of system status

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

For example: progress bars, confirmation messages.

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.

Key takeaway: make sure the navigation is familiar to those who will be using it.

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.

For example: back buttons, remove from cart options.

Consistency and standards

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

For example: label search button "search" not "find".

Error prevention

Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.

Key takeaway: make filling in forms easy, give instructions to the users.

Recognition rather than recall

Minimize the user's memory load by making 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.

Key takeaway: make sure the user has everything to hand to complete the task.

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.

For example: saved searches, items you last looked at. 

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.

Key takeaway: design a web site to get results, with clear calls to action.

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.

Key takeaway: error messages must be useful.

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.

For example: FAQ pages, live help facilities.


At Edward Robertson we strive to make our web sites as easy to use as possible (and have been since 1996).  Web design trends come and go, but these ten principles have as important a place in web design now as they did when they were written.

We plan, design, develop and support trusted tech solutions for people like you.

Let's talk about how we can work together.