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Heuristic Evaluation method: considerations for everyday cycling

For many urban mobility professionals, the Heuristic Evaluation is a new method. In fact, it originates in the field of human-computer interaction and was developed by usability specialists. So, for those considering using the method in their own practice: what is a heuristic evaluation, and why use it to plan for cycling?

In hybrid FAQ style, we dive inside the origin, purpose, and best practices for the method, and explain our application to everyday cycling.

In short, a Heuristic Evaluation is an estimation of the usability of an interface. 'Estimation' signals the intent and nature of this method. 'Usability' is essentially how easy something is to use. 'Interface' is what is being evaluated. The point of applying this method in the urban mobility context is to quickly and broadly evaluate how usable a street is. You identify its strengths and flaws based on an overview of ratings on usability principles.

But before we go any further, let's first visit the origin of the method.

Origin of the Heuristic Evaluation method and best practices

Where did this method come from?

It originates in the field of human-computer interaction and was developed by usability specialists Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich to assess interfaces. Nielsen Norman Group, a user experience (UX) research and consulting firm, maintains a knowledge base with articles and videos on best practices for UX-related methods, including the Heuristic Evaluation.

Some of NNgroup's best practices for the method include:

  • Have multiple people perform the evaluation (ideally 3-5 people) - do it independently and consolidate the identified issues afterwards

  • Set a narrow scope

  • Prepare new evaluators by asking them to read and understand the heuristics

Some of NNgroup's qualifications for the method include:

  • Heuristic evaluations cannot replace user testing

  • (Nielsen's set of) heuristics are broad, high-level guidelines

  • The method is useful to stretch limited budgets

An urban planning toolkit to incorporate everyday people's experiences

Years later, the Bicycle User Experience (BUX) project started with an observation - that it was not easy or pleasant to ride a bicycle on many city streets. Existing bicycle infrastructure planning (in many cities) did not take the experience of the person riding a bicycle adequately into account, so that a variety of people ("everyday cycling") would want to ride a bicycle there. Importantly, the professional toolkit for urban planners working on cycling did not include this.

BUX looked to expand the urban planning toolkit for everyday cycling. Inspired by the user experience and usability fields who already studied people to make things easy and pleasant to use, BUX saw synergy in their methodology. Their approach complemented urban planning's civic orientation of serving citizens. (In essence... to make cycling work for the citizens- to make it easy and pleasant to do- through design of the street).

In steps the Heuristic Evaluation, which is one of the methods that these fields use.

Considerations for a Heuristic Evaluation for everyday cycling

The advantage of using a Heuristic Evaluation in planning streets for everyday cycling is that it gives you signals as to which best practices are or aren't being followed on a given street. And it does this for a broad swath of usability best practice principles. It is an effective way to notice 'red flags' that you may not have considered before, and in turn can point you in the direction to make a street more usable for everyday people cycling. While proper care is still needed in conducting the method, it is also relatively quick and cheap to perform.

I want to make bicycle infrastructure that everyday people will use. How does a Heuristic Evaluation fit into this?

A Heuristic Evaluation evaluates a street ("user interface"). It leads you to action points to make the street easier and more pleasant ("usable") to ride a bicycle on. The evaluation is based off of best practice principles ("heuristics") selected to make cycling accessible to the everyday person ("user") .

What care do I need to take when performing this usability method in the urban mobility context?

Bring your urban mobility knowledge and lived experience of riding a bicycle to the evaluation. The person initiating the Heuristic Evaluation should also be aware of the limitations of and best practices for the method itself, and be intentional in coordinating how it is conducted.

How were the heuristics used in the BUX version of the Heuristic Evaluation method chosen?

The heuristics were selected for their suitability to evaluate “everyday cycling”. Criteria for this included which heuristics matched the context of the street interface and the embodied activity of riding a bicycle. Furthermore, which ones aligned with the idea of making streets usable to the widest variety of people, and allowed different riding styles. The heuristics were selected from a compilation of broader universal principles of the design fields.

Are the heuristics listed in the BUX version of the method the only ones I can or should use?

These are just one list. Other best practice lists in the bicycle planning field include the 5 principles of the CROW manual, and the 5 principles of the “sustainable safety” vision. It is possible that there are other selections of best practice principles that fit your specific use case.

Could you develop a heuristic evaluation for the suitability of roads for sport cycling (or another specialized practice)?

This could be possible. If you were to do this, we recommend to consider consulting people specialized in the needs of sport cyclists (or chosen specialized practice) to compile the list of relevant heuristics.


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