ARTICLE: Chris Albert

Getting out of design debt with an actionable UX audit

Products, like people, don’t always age gracefully. When it comes to digital products, this aging process begins as soon as new features or bug fixes are introduced and it accelerates when you’re consolidating multiple products into one platform.

Over time, as more and more changes take place, design debt (or internal inconsistencies that don’t match the product’s underlying design system) naturally begins to accrue. From minor visual discrepancies all the way up to broken functionalities, design debt fragments and undermines user experience. As design debt builds, the quality of your product slowly degrades — even as your team is working to improve it! User testing alone isn’t enough to combat this problem. The only way to holistically identify and pay down design debt is to regularly perform a UX audit.

Usability audits are crucial to the long-term health of your products, but they can feel complicated to pull off. Especially in audits that are wide or deep in scope, it’s a real challenge to figure out how to approach the audit itself and keep the huge number of observations and associated recommendations organized. With such a large output of data, it can be even more difficult to know what to do with the findings of an audit.

You need to structure your UX audit so that you get findings that are thorough, easy to parse, and helpful in prioritizing decisions. Most importantly, you need to translate those findings into a properly triaged action plan that paves the way to an improved product.

How Do You Know It’s Time to Perform a UX Audit?

There’s no hard and fast rule dictating how frequently a product should be audited. It’s a judgment call — seasoned product owners may experience it as a gut feeling — but one that can be backed up with data. Here are a few key indicators that it’s probably time for an audit:

  • You’re experiencing an uptick in customer feedback about issues with your product. For example, you may be seeing higher-than-average call volume to your customer service center from users asking for help resolving functional issues.
  • Your product’s user metrics indicate that more and more users are abandoning tasks before successfully completing them.
  • User testing uncovers unexpected problems that point to the need for a larger audit.

Keep in mind that the longer you wait to perform an audit, the bigger and more complex that audit will need to be. So whatever you do, don’t wait too long to get started.

UX Testing and UX Audits: Different but Complementary

User testing and usability audits are similar, but they aren’t the same thing. They perform two different but complementary functions, and both are necessary for the long-term success of your products.

Usability testing looks at your product from the direct perspective of test users who are tasked with navigating your product to complete a function or solve a problem. Your test users’ relative distance from the product is what makes them so useful as test subjects. They don’t know precisely how the product is supposed to work, and this lack of familiarity is essential to demonstrating how intuitive (or frustrating) your product will be for the real users it seeks to serve.

Usability audits, on the other hand, are performed by product experts, not test users. These experts may come from your internal UX team or from an agency partner like Openfield. Either way, auditors should be usability experts who also have a familiarity with the product that is being assessed. This expertise and familiarity allow UX auditors to assess the product in ways that go well beyond the findings associated with user testing, uncovering design system breakdowns and identifying possible solutions.

Building a Roadmap for a Successful UX Audit

Part of what makes UX audits overwhelming is figuring out how best to approach these deep-dive assessments. With so much to consider, it’s crucial that the audit itself be structured in a way that prevents you from overlooking important dimensions of the experience.

To begin with, you’ll want to start by defining the scope of your audit. While it’s definitely valuable to audit an entire product comprehensively, we’ve found that it can be more productive (and cost-effective) to purposefully narrow your parameters for the exercise. For example, you might choose to audit the areas of your product with the most complexity and/or those that seem to be the most problematic based on customer feedback. Alternatively, you might plan a sequence of smaller audits to be done in succession, building up a holistic perspective on the larger system as you go. That said, if it’s been ages since the system has been audited end-to-end, a comprehensive audit is definitely warranted to give your team the full picture.

Once you’ve clarified the scope of your audit, your team can design a series of test cases that will comprise the audit itself. For example, if your product is used to register for classes, one test case might be to drop a course, and another might be to sign up for another one in its place.

Auditing Your Product with Heuristics and Severity Dimensions

You’ve got a roadmap in place for your audit, but how can you be sure it will catch all the big issues? To do that, you’ll need to put some structure around how you run your assessments.

At Openfield, we recommend using heuristics as a framework for evaluation when performing a usability audit. In the context of UX, heuristics are general usability principles that can be thought of as rules of thumb; they serve as high-level guidelines, not detailed rules. Looking at a product (including each test case in an audit) through the lens of heuristic principles establishes a clear, consistent set of criteria by which to evaluate your product. Beyond that, heuristic principles ensure that you look at the product UX from a variety of different perspectives, bringing a more thorough accounting of usability weaknesses to the surface.

Nielsen’s top ten usability heuristics is the most commonly used heuristics framework for UX audits, but it’s not the only one out there. Weinschenk and Barker’s classification system is another useful method, for example. You don’t need to audit against all criteria in a framework if not every dimension seems relevant to your product. You’ll find that some criteria tend to overlap others, so adapt the framework to suit your needs if it helps your audit stay more focused.

With the help of heuristics, you’ll uncover a raft of usability issues. Your next challenge is to prioritize those issues in some way. The best way to do this is to assign severity rankings to each of your findings as you discover them. Severity rankings can be scored using a variety of simple rubrics. For example, you might use a scale of one to five, with one representing minor cosmetic issues and five representing broken functionality. An additional ranking system is sometimes added to assess how difficult or costly it would be to fix each issue (we call these “effort” or “complexity” rankings).

Associating severity rankings to your heuristics evaluations makes it much easier to separate the greatest pain points from lower-friction issues and, from there, prioritize your action plan.

Your Post-Audit Action Plan

Performing an audit takes smart planning and solid execution, but the hard part is knowing what to do with all the information that flows from your audit.

At Openfield, we believe that properly structuring your audit with heuristics and severity rankings goes a long way toward producing easily interpreted, actionable results.

When we perform UX audits for our clients, we not only optimize the process to produce clear, consistent data, but we also interpret these findings in an executive summary. The executive summary surfaces the biggest issues and opportunities found in the audit and recommends prioritizations, allowing stakeholders to make clear decisions about how to take the “first next step” in improving their product.

If you’re interested in working with Openfield to audit your EdTech product, or just have questions about our process, drop us a line. We’d love to talk.

  • Photo of Chris Albert
    Chris Albert

    As a UX Design Lead at Openfield, Chris is a deep thinker with a savant-like ability to untangle and simplify complex systems. Now in his 8th year with Openfield, the wisdom of his 20+ year career in design and his tireless devotion to his work and clients inspires everyone at Openfield. Out of the office, you’ll find him doing the same thing he does at work – ever advancing one of his many crafts and interests. He’s a letterpressing photographing traveling gaming car guy. Chris is our Renaissance man.

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