During the little talk I gave on why usability testing is easy, I recommended that people review their site or application before doing any testing with users. Why? Because this should help you clear up the big, obvious issues that all your users will spot, and instead let them focus on the more granular issues.
What do I mean by “review”, though?
Well, you could use a so-called expert review, where you ask a design / usability expert to go through your site, and point out those big issues. The other approach is heuristic analysis, where you check your site against a given set of heuristics, or “rules-of-thumb”. These best practice heuristics can also be very useful as guidelines throughout the design phase of any project.
Some useful heuristics
The heuristics that can be followed are widely-accepted standards or best practices, and can easily be referenced. This can make heuristic analysis a very useful approach if you need to report findings to management who might otherwise be wary of accepting the findings of an expert review. There is much less room for subjectivity, since you are following a pre-defined list of heuristics (bear in mind, of course, that an expert will base his or her findings on a similar set of heuristics, drawn from their experience, that they carry around in their head… )
The ones I always have in mind are:
10 Usability Heuristics [for interface design] (Nielsen)
[ http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_list.html ]
8 Golden rules of Interface Design (Schneiderman)
[ http://faculty.washington.edu/jtenenbg/courses/360/f04/sessions/schneidermanGoldenRules.html ]
Six features of good Rich Internet Applications (Neil & Scott)
[ http://www.insideria.com/2009/09/50-most-usable-rias.html ]
Using these heuristics, often in combination, is a powerful and structured way for you to assess a site or application. This is still a manual task, of course, and probably not very quick, but often very fruitful.
Find out a bit more about practice and application:
CRAP visual design tip
Since I started at the EBI, I have also advocated the rather unfortunately-named CRAP principles. This is pretty a well-established set of principles used in visual design (print or the web, no matter), that require designers to consider the Contrast, Repetition, Alignment and Proximity of features and elements. They are a great set of guidelines to follow, and a good way to ensure consistency and coherency of designs from state-to-state.
Note… some more sensitive types re-name this as “CARP” principles…