Heuristic Analysis: What's Wrong with This Picture

By Neil McKay


Heuristic analysis is the initial research performed by an experienced optimiser who wants to identify problems in your website that are causing you to lose money.

The optimiser follows the journey your visitors take when using your website. They put themselves in the visitors’ shoes by going through your website’s sales funnel (home, category, product, basket, and checkout pages).

And, they note anything that could potentially prevent your visitors from doing what they wanted to do—i.e. buy something.

generic picture of heuristic analysis

The optimiser goes through each webpage systematically while asking, “What’s wrong with this picture?”. They are looking for areas of interest that raise questions about the website’s ability to convert customers. They’ll answer those questions through additional research.

Every webpage has an objective

Now put yourself in the role of the optimiser so that you can begin to appreciate the process. The crucial question you must ask is, “Do your webpages achieve their objectives?”

If we look at the home page of an eCommerce website, for example, it should have two objectives:

First, does it deliver top-level information that explains to your customers

  • who you are
  • what you do
  • how you do it
  • why you are better than the competition. A visitor will ask, “What’s in it for me?” and you need to be able to answer satisfactorily within a matter of seconds to retain their interest. When you’ve answered this you can move to the second objective.

Second, does it easily and successfully direct your visitors on their scent trail to find the information they want?

Now, let’s look at the category page. Its objective is to help your visitors find the product that is right for them. Here you need to focus on four critical areas:

  1. Does the filter help to narrow down their choice?
  2. Does the sort function help to present the most relevant products to them in the order they should like to see them?
  3. Does the product grid area give them enough information (title, clear image, and price) to help them to select the product?
  4. Is there anything on the page distracting them from making their selection?

When they have found what they want, the objective of the product page is to persuade them to add the item to the basket. Therefore, you need to ask yourself, “Does my website do this?” That question will raise several other detailed questions, including:

  • Is there a clear headline (product name)?
  • Is the main image visible above the fold?
  • Are the thumbnail images in view?
  • Can the images be swiped on mobile devices?
  • Is the price clearly visible?
  • Is the action area (the place where you select the size, colour, quantity, etc.) clear and easy to use?
  • Does my call to action (CTA) have visual hierarchy?
  • Are there any triggers to encourage the visitor to add the product to the shopping basket if they need further convincing to buy?
  • Is the supporting text useful?
  • Is social proof needed?

All of the above questions (and more) need consideration when looking for potential conversion killers. But, don’t dive headlong into answering them; instead, work through each one using a logical framework.

Follow an analytical framework

Heuristic analysis is methodical and there are several frameworks you can use—for example, Web Arts, Invesp, and MarketingExperiments (MECLABS). You may recognise the latter’s copyrighted formula:

C = 4M +3V + 2(I-F) – 2A ©

C is the conversion, M is the motivation, V is value proposition, I is incentive, F is the friction, and A is anxiety. And, the multipliers indicate the value of each component to your website.

In a nutshell, it means intensify the motivation of the website visitor/customer, clarify the value, increase the incentives, and reduce friction and anxiety as much as possible to improve conversions.

However, I favour an adaption of Wider Funnel’s “LIFT™” model because I find it easier to follow.

So, we’ll assess each area of interest against the following criteria from the model:

  • Value proposition—i.e., is this webpage clear and understandable, can visitors understand what it’s all about?
  • Relevance—e.g., how relevant is the highlighted promotion to the objective of the webpage? (Because promotions can be distracting from the main message of the webpage.)
  • Clarity—e.g., is the content easy to read?
  • Distraction—e.g., why is there a big banner sending visitors away from this webpage to another website?
  • Anxiety—e.g., is this checkout process secure?
  • Urgency—e.g., why isn’t “free shipping” promoted?

Using a model will structure the heuristic activity and ensure that you’re documenting your findings and that makes it much easier when integrating with other research.

The practicalities of heuristic analysis

Here’s an example of my own heuristic analysis of the eCommerce retailer, TK Maxx. It’s not exhaustive, but it should give you an idea. I’ll apply the criteria introduced earlier.

TKMaxx heuristic analysis

I begin by considering the objective of the webpage and ask some questions about it. Starting at the top of the webpage and working my way down, I am looking for anything that could hesitate or stop conversions.

Here’s my list of questions—and classifications: value proposition, clarity, relevance, distractions, etc.

  1. Value proposition and clarity: Is it clear who this site is for? What is its value proposition? How is it different from TK Maxx’s competitors? Is the value proposition immediately apparent, or at least within the first few seconds?
  2. Clarity: What does the search bar tell us? How does it convert? What do people search for? How does it handle incorrect spellings? How does it display the results and in what order? Which results do people click?
  3. Relevance: Who is “Find Store” targeting? Desktop, Tablet, or mobile users?
  4. Relevance: What determines the order of the navigation? What gets the most clicks? Is this due to its positioning or popularity?
  5. Clarity: Can visitors see the “nudge bars”—free delivery, new brands added daily, and always up to 60% less? How important are these to visitors? Do they deserve higher prominence on the page?
  6. Distraction and relevance: Is the carousel a distraction? How do visitors interact with it? Is it relevant to visitors? Does it convert? If so, how does it compare to the rest of the stuff on the webpage? Is it squatting on a valuable position of the webpage that could be put to better use? (See article Does “the Fold” Matter?)
  7. Relevance: What dictates the main promotional grid slots on the home page? How is this order decided upon? How well does each slot convert? Are they seen below the fold? Do the images help the visitor find what it is they are looking for? Are prices needed? Are the CTA’s clear and enticing?
  8. Clarity and relevance: Do website visitors see the secondary promoted products shown under “Lovely living room finds” with their prices and how relevant are they? Is the slider used? Do people click on the images? Do they convert?
  9. Relevance: Do website visitors value the “This week we’re inspired by” section? How do they interact with it?
  10. Relevance: How important is the “Not just a pretty face’” section for visitors? Does it deserve home page prominence?
  11. Relevance: Why should visitors sign up for the newsletter? What’s in it for them? How do newsletter subscribers convert in comparison with other channels?
  12. Clarity: In the footer navigation, what gets clicks, what doesn’t?
  13. Relevance: Are customer reviews important? If so, do the 26647 “feefo” reviews need higher prominence.

So, there you have a working example to draw from. What areas of interest do you see in the TK Maxx home page?

Mapping and rating points of interest

When conducting your own heuristic analysis, you can simply print screenshots of your webpages and add manual annotations, etc. However, there are some very useful software tools for improving productivity.

For example, “Awesome Screenshots” and many readily available online collaborative tools allow all team members to write notes directly on the page and in the appropriate place.

Be systematic and take a comprehensive approach

Heuristic analysis is just the start of the conversion research process. It’s about asking questions and then using further research to answer them, thereby helping to identify where the leakages are in your website. Once you know where the leakages are, you can go about plugging the holes.

Neil McKay
Hi, I’m Neil and I’m passionate about helping organisations grow their businesses online by applying data, science and psychology. Our company Endless Gain is central to this passion. For more than 15 years, I’ve been helping businesses here in the UK, Europe and USA grow their online profits. Today’s businesses must be more scientific in how they approach business growth and that’s where we can help. In addition, our approach to conversion optimisation enables companies to maximise their marketing channel investments.

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