Usability heuristics

My doctoral research is about privacy, precisely about people’s privacy decision-making. Hence, the human and design are the most important elements of my work. One of the goals of my work is to understand how the decisions are being made and how especially designed choice architecture can improve privacy decisions. Therefore, usability is one of the research fields that is central for my work.

Some would say, that with a progress done in the field of User Experience, usability is no longer an issue. But I think it is still a problem. Let me give you an example… which in some ways reminds me of the commonly known doors usability example.

In order to progress with my research, I had to move to another country. Therefore, I had to find a temporary accommodation. As a result, I relocated to the student accommodation. To cut the story short I have taken a photo to prove my point (forgive the low quality).

What do you think is odd in this photo? Frankly, I was shocked when I used this doors for doors_openingthe first time. In order to access it, you must use the keys. Open the lock, then pull, yes, pull… which means that it is extremely difficult to open the doors with any shopping in hand (consider the type of the door handle). But this is not the end of the story. If you look closer, beneath the doors is a metal grid lid, covering a hole. I could not believe it! It is such a perfect spot to drop keys or money.

Yes, but what does it have to do with my work? Well, it is yet another example proving that even architects still lack an appropriate knowledge of usability (perhaps this one was lazy!). And if they still struggle, you can imagine that it is still a problem for technology designers and developers. However, luckily they are not left in the darkness.

In my work, I try to follow simple usability heuristics which are well defined since a relatively long time. Some of the pioneers of UX field such as Norman, Nielsen, and Molich carried empirical studies that resulted in usability principles. The list of 10 simple heuristics, that should be applied in the design life-cycle to ensure that the system is efficient, understandable, easy to learn… basically usable. (If you want to read more about the user experience you can also have a look at my LinkedIn post UX: perceptions and expectations)

Ten Usability Heuristics by Jakob Nielsen

Image aquired from


The usability heuristics together with the ISO 9241-210 standard: Ergonomics of human-system interaction – Part 210: Human-centered design for interactive systems (ISO 9241-210:2010) provide an excellent base for the designers and developers of HCI. If followed, implementation of this simple rules may highly improve system’s usability and the user’s satisfaction.

This is why, in the Privacy&Us project, the early stage researchers, such as myself, try to implement usability in their work on privacy. One may ask, why is it needed? Well, as mentioned in my post about the history of privacy, privacy is a complex notion. Consider the ongoing issue with privacy policies which are frequently ignored by users. While we all want to know what happens with the information provided to online companies, for an average person reading privacy policy is a cumbersome task. The task that requires high cognitive effort, sometimes an appropriate level of legal knowledge, certain level of education, and usually a lot of time (and I mean really a lot of time!). And even if we will read all of the privacy policies and T&Cs (yes, we must remember about those too), the amount of information we have to remember and learn does not really allow us to make an informed privacy decision. In a result, every day when online, we place ourselves at risks of tangible (economic, physical etc.) as well as invisible harms, such as misuse of information, distortion, public exposure, security breaches and much more.

I believe that such risks may be reduced by the human centered design of privacy.  It may help to bring attention to the privacy, expose potential harms and provide the user with a guide leading to better or at least informed decision.

What do you think about it? Do you have any ideas how the 10 usability principles can help with designing privacy? I am looking forward to your comments!


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