10 Heuristics for an Optimal User Experience - alt.chi 2013

10 Heuristics for an Optimal User Experience - alt.chi 2013

10 Heuristics for an Optimal User Experience - alt.chi 2013


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Luca Colombo

University of Lugano

Via Buffi 13

6900 Lugano



Marco Pasch

University of Lugano

Via Buffi 13

6900 Lugano



10 Heuristics for an Optimal User


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CHI’12, May 5–10, 2012, Austin, Texas, USA.

Copyright 2012 ACM 978-1-4503-1016-1/12/05...$10.00.


In this paper we present 10 heuristics for ensuring a

good user experience, derived from a critical inspection

of flow theory and applying it to the context of humancomputer

interaction. The heuristics are intended as

guidelines for practitioners when designing and

evaluating interactive products. We show how each

heuristic derives from flow theory, provide design

recommendations based on the heuristic, and give an

example that illustrates it.

Author Keywords

Heuristics, User Experience, Flow Theory

ACM Classification Keywords

H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g.,

HCI): Miscellaneous

General Terms

Human Factors


Interactive products have become ubiquitous

companions of all facets of everyday life. In humancomputer

interaction research, these changes are

reflected in a shift away from investigating how to

make task-related interaction more effective and

efficient towards finding out how interaction can

happen in a more joyous and satisfying way. After a lot

of discussion on competing frameworks and

terminology, the term user experience has emerged for

this direction of research.

We argue that there is only little consensus on what

user experience is or should be, and an abundance of

possible definitions that while stimulating make it

difficult to come up with a working one. As a

consequence, practitioners are left without guidelines

on what constitutes a good user experience and how

they can design for it.

In an effort to build an understanding of enjoyment in

games, Sweetser and Wyeth [20] develop the

GameFlow model. They do so by mapping elements

from game literature to flow theory. The result is a list

of 8 criteria that can be used to evaluate how enjoyable

a particular game is.

In this paper, we follow a similar approach by deriving

general user experience heuristics from flow theory. In

doing so, we pursue two goals. From a theory

perspective, we aim at informing, expanding, and

contributing to the ongoing discussion on what good

user experience is or should be. For practitioners, we

provide a list of heuristics that can be used in the

design and evaluation of interactive devices and


The notion of heuristics is not undisputed in humancomputer

interaction research. Under the user-centered

design paradigm that demands involvement of users as

early and often as possible in the development process,

the idea of relying on experts inspecting a system

based on a number of heuristics has come under heavy


Our motivation for proposing user experience heuristics

here comes from our background. Both authors have

worked in small design companies and often witnessed

how the requirement of involving users was neglected,

justified with a number of reasons such as time or

money constraints. In consequence we believe there is

still a lot of merit to the discount usability claim that

while it may not be the best usability methodology to

use, it is better than using none. Our list of heuristics is

intended as a resource-friendly way to ensure good

user experience of a product when time and money are


Flow Theory

Flow is a well-established and validated psychological

theory developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that

describes what an optimal experience is.

Csikszentmihalyi [5] defines flow as a mental state of

deep enjoyment and intense engagement in a certain

activity, where most of a person’s attentional resources

are devoted to accomplish that activity. An optimal

experience is what a person experiences when being in

a state of flow and it is characterized by universal

conditions: 1) clear goals; 2) feedback; 3) focused

concentration; 4) loss of self-consciousness;

5) merging of action and awareness; 6) challenging

activity that requires adequate skills; 7) sense of

control; 8) a distorted sense of time; 9) autotelic

activity (motivations).

These 9 major components (in [5], 8 components are

given, but we split “clear goals and feedback” for

convenience) are the most often mentioned

accompanying factors of an optimal experience

regardless of the activity performed and of one’s

sociocultural characteristics. As stated by the author

there is no need to meet all these conditions to

experience flow.

Flow theory has been already used in HCI studies (for a

review see [9] [11], [21]) as a framework for modeling

mental states like enjoyment, engagement, and


There are still two main limitations when using flow

theory for HCI research. First, there is still a lack of

consistency in the conceptual and methodological

definitions of flow used by different researchers [15]

even though researchers generally agree on the original

conceptual definition of flow as presented by

Csikszentmihalyi in [5].

The second limitation is that flow theory, in its original

form, looked into the optimal experience by considering

solely the person, the activity performed by her and the

interaction between the two. But when this interaction

is mediated by an artefact (or system, we use these

two terms interchangeably) then it would be better to

re-conceptualize flow in order to consider this third

component as well as its interaction with the person

and the task (or the user and the activity).

Some authors already stressed the importance to

distinguish task from artefact [8], and consequently,

task flow from artefact flow [17]. But to our best

knowledge there are no works specifically focused on

providing a detailed list of recommendations on how a

system should be designed in order to facilitate an

optimal user experience. In this paper we try to fill this

gap as much as drawing a clearer link between flow

theory and HCI while enabling researchers to overcome

the above-mentioned limitations. The heuristics we

present are the result of an extensive literature review

and of a deductive approach in which we map the flow

components into guidelines for providing an optimal

user experience.

User Experience Heuristics

In the following we present each heuristic, describe

how it derives from flow theory, provide design

recommendations based on the heuristic and give an

example that illustrates it. The first 9 are directly

mapped from the aforementioned flow components

(following the same order). The tenth heuristic

(conservative innovation), derives from

Csikszentmihalyi’s finding that what all flow activities

have in common is providing a sense of discovery, a

creative feeling of transporting the person into a new

reality [5].

1. Clear goals

The purpose of the system should be clear. The system

has to fulfill, or even better exceed, user’s


Flow theory states that in order to be engaged in an

activity, one should define clear goals to be obtained

from the activity itself, and should strive to achieve

them [5].

When the experience is mediated by a system, users

have some expectations on how the system will support

them in performing a certain activity. These

expectations depend on the affordances of the system.

Affordances make it obvious how an object is meant to

be used [8] even though the actual perception of

affordances will be determined in part by the observer’s

culture, social setting, experience and intentions [10].

Obviously designers do not have control over such

variables, but they can determine which affordances

are present in the system and how users will perceive

them. As such we recommend:

! the system should be designed with the right

affordances to explicitly tell users its purpose(s):

! the system must be functional, meaning that it

must fulfill the purposes highlighted by the affordances

and meet users’ expectations;

! additional features (other than the core ones) are

welcome, even better if they foresee possible

alternative uses of the system: a product that is

actually exceeding users’ expectations is often a

predictor of a good user experience [3].

As an example consider so-called bridge cameras.

These are often comparable in size, weight and

appearance to digital single-lens reflex (DSLR)

cameras, but they lack the advanced functionalities and

image quality of the latter. However their DSLR like

camera-body (affordance) could create expectations

that are not met by the system.

This discrepancy between users’ expectations and

system purpose could explain (amongst other factors)

the low commercial success of this specific category of

digital cameras. This could also explain the increasing

popularity of mirror-less interchangeable-lens camera

(MILC) where the expectations suggested by their

affordance (they look like compact cameras) are

exceeded by the system.

2. Appropriate feedback

The user-system interaction should be sustained

through steady, prompt and unobtrusive feedback.

Feedback is important as it increases users’ confidence

in interacting with a system by creating order in

consciousness, and strengthening the structure of the

self. Feedback can increase engagement provided it is

logically related to a goal in which one has invested

mental energy [5].

But feedback alone is not enough; it should be provided

steadily (to sustain user interaction), promptly (to

increase awareness) and unobtrusively (to not interfere

with the experience).

From this we derive as design recommendations that:

! the system should provide steady and prompt


! the feedback should be as less obtrusive as


! the “obtrusiveness” of the feedback should be

proportional to the level of priority (to establish a sort

of hierarchy).

The Web 2.0 paradigm provides a good example on

how feedback can influence user experience. The most

important technological innovation of Web 2.0 is

Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX), which made

it possible to provide users with real-time feedback.

Moreover the obtrusiveness of the feedback was

reduced since with AJAX the page content can be

updated without refreshing the page, thus avoiding

interrupting user interaction with the webpage.

3. Focused concentration

The system should be simple and intuitive in its use; it

should facilitate user concentration on the task at hand

by providing meaningful feedback and avoiding nonrelevant


A characteristic of optimal experience is that for people

to reach this state, they must be able to focus their

attention at length on the task at hand. Concentrating

on the task further enhances one’s focus, often

enabling them to tune out other input [1].

According to perceptual load theory [4] task-irrelevant

stimuli are perceived in situations of low perceptual

load when the relevant task leaves spare capacity for

their processing, but not in situations of high perceptual

load where all available capacity is consumed. This

phenomenon is also known as inattentional blindness.

Mancero et al. [13] found that that the more relevant

and meaningful the stimuli are the more responsive the

person became.

From this we can obtain the recommendations that:

! the system must be usable;

! the system should provide feedback that is relevant

and meaningful for the task at hand;

! the system should avoid distractions, namely

stimuli that are not relevant for the task at hand;

Google AdWords provides a good example for all this.

When users perform searches on Google they are

provided with the result of the search together with

some advertisements based on their current search

terms. The main reason why these advertisements are

more effective, and users have a better experience,

than disruptive colorful blinking banners is mainly

because the stimulus provided to users is not

distracting them from their primary task (searching)

and it is relevant and meaningful to the task at hand.

4. Ergonomical transparency

The system should almost disappear, be transparent,

while used to allow users to focus on the activity and to

engage in the experience.

When an activity is thoroughly engrossing, there is not

enough attention left over to allow a person to consider

any temporarily irrelevant stimuli, including selfconsciousness


More mental energy devoted to the activity means

more engagement as well as less space in mind to keep

consciousness of the self and, equally important, of the


The loss of self-consciousness mainly depends on one’s

mental attitude, but the system can be designed to be

as “transparent” as possible. A technology that is well

fitted to our skills, our purposes and the activity we are

performing is almost invisible in use [2].

The aim is to move users’ flow into the realm of the

task and to engage them there (task flow) and to focus

their minds on the experience, rather than on the

system (artifact flow) [17]. To be “transparent” the

system should then meet these characteristics:

! the system should be ergonomic, it should fit users’

skills and activity purposes;

! the system behavior should be consistent and


! the system should be designed with aesthetical

integrity, in other words the design should be visually

appealing and common principles of good design should

be followed; it should also provide a graceful flow,

namely the interaction between users and the system

should be smooth and graceful.

Loss of self-consciousness and invisibility of the system

are especially important to achieve while playing

videogames, indeed they are often referred as

indicators of immersion [20].

We can see how these principles work in practice in one

of the most-popular videogame of the last few years:

Angry Birds.

All the criteria we listed above are met by the system

consisting of the game engine (the gameplay, the

sound, the physic engine, etc. for a deeper review see

[14]) and of the device on which it runs (the

touchscreen makes the interaction with the system

more intuitive and transparent). No matter which

mobile device we are using, if the battery is running

low or if our train stop is the next one: we must

destroy those loathsome pigs!

5. Technology appropriation

Users should be allowed to customize and manipulate

the system according to their peculiarities and

preferences, to feel familiar with the system, as if the

system was tailored specifically for them.

When people are completely absorbed by the activity,

they become so involved in what they are doing that

the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic;

they stop being aware of themselves as separate from

the actions they are performing [5].

As a result, the person will then feel part of a whole,

completely merged into a system of interaction

consisting of the person itself, the artifact and the task


We wrote above that a transparent system would

facilitate user engagement, but this feature alone is not

enough. The possibility to appropriate and adapt the

technology can improve the system’s situatedness

(adaptability to the context of use) and dynamicity

(adaptability to changes over time) and users’ sense of

ownership [15]. Hence we recommend that:

! the system should be, to a certain extent,

customizable and manipulable by users in both its

appearance and its functionality;

! the customization process should be easily

accessible, and with a predictable outcome

! provide users with multiple choices for interacting

with the system (doing the same activity in many

different ways)

An example of this can be found in office software

suites. Users can customize toolbars and menus, the

customization is easily accessible and reversible and

they have different options for accomplishing the same

activity (e.g. to paste the content of the clipboard one

can use the command-v keyboard shortcut, the

edit->paste menu bar item or the clipboard

toolbar button).

6. Challenges/skills balance

The system should adapt to the user in that it should

be designed to dynamically provide adequate

challenges for both novice, average and experienced


An important factor in determining flow or frustration is

not the absolute challenges of the activity, nor the

absolute level of users’ skills, but rather the relative

balance between the two [16]. Enjoyment comes at a

very specific point: whenever the opportunities for

action perceived by the individual are equal to his or

her capabilities [5].

It is worth noticing that this balance is dynamic. While

we interact with a system we implicitly masters new

skills, skills that need to be balanced by new adequate


Challenges should not be interpreted as “barriers to

use” but as a bundle of opportunities for action,

opportunities for a more efficient and fulfilling

interaction. So, to allow a dynamic balance between

challenges and skills:

! the system should have a steep learning curve to

help novice users;

! the system should encourage users to explore it

and to discover all the features and opportunities for


! the system should provide advanced features or

extra functions (e.g. accelerators, macros, advanced

settings, etc.) and make them accessible for

intermediate/advanced users;

This dynamic balance can be found in Mac OS X

operating system. The system is intuitive and simple

enough for novice users (Have you ever tried to install

a new application both on Windows or OSX?); it is

possible for intermediate users to customize and

optimize it (e.g. create macros with Automator and

customize keyboard shortcuts, trackpad gestures or

screen hot corners); while it gives full control to

experienced users (with the UNIX shell you can hack

almost everything).

7. Potential control

The system should make users feel “free” of constraints

and, at the same time, in control of the experience.

The flow experience is typically described as involving a

sense of control or, more precisely, as lacking the

sense of worry about losing control that is typical in

many situations of normal life [5]. Needless to say that

feeling in control of the system is a precondition for

feeling in control of the experience.

The adjective “potential” is used intentionally, meaning

that actually users do not have to always be in

complete control of the system: what people enjoy is

not the sense of being in control, but the sense of

exercising control in difficult situations [5].

Or, to use Shneiderman’s words the system should

“support internal locus of control” [17], meaning that

users have to believe that activity outcomes result

primarily from his own behavior and actions. In order

to do so:

! the system should help users to improve their skills

and to reduce the margin of error in performing the


! the system should not make users feel trapped.

Avoid (as far as possible) constraining users’ actions,

provide them an exit strategy and make the actions

easily reversible;

! users should be always allowed to enable or disable

automatic processes or system aids.

If we look at modern racing simulation videogames

they all provide driving aids (e.g. traction control) in

order to support players in the first phases of the

gaming experience. But each of these features can be

easily disabled by users whenever they want, in some

videogames even while they are playing: the possibility

of enabling/disabling this kind of aids is crucial for

supporting internal locus of control.

Finally, players can always restart the race (exit

strategy) and in some games even rewind

(reversibility) if they have committed some mistakes.

8. Follow the rhythm

The pace of the system should adapt to the user and to

the rhythm of the experience.

One of the most common descriptions of optimal

experience is that time no longer seems to pass the

way it ordinarily does. The objective duration of time is

rendered irrelevant by the rhythms dictated by the

activity [5].

Thus to enable an optimal user experience it is not

crucial to have a fast and hyper-responsive system, it is

rather crucial that the system pace is appropriate to the

experience and to the user.

This does not mean that “fast is bad”: time still has an

important role when it comes to user experience, but in

this case the focus should be on the user’s perception

of time rather than on “mere” efficiency. For this


! the system’s pace should be suitable for the

activity for which it was designed;

! the experience should not be interrupted by the

system but users should be allowed to suspend the

interaction and to restart it from the point of

achievement he reached;

! users should be allowed to speed up or slow down

the rhythm of the interaction.

We know that this heuristic could sound odd for

videogames where speed increase is crucial for keeping

the user engaged, like Tetris for instance. Let us take it

as example.

It is true that users are not allowed to slow down the

game but the purpose of “soft/hard drop” and “pause”

controls is to give users a certain degree of control over

the game speed. This will allow them to adapt the

game speed to their skills thus improving gaming


By looking at file sharing systems, we can understand

the importance of adapting system pace to the user.

Downloading on a dial-up connection a large file is

frustrating. But it is also true that the opposite situation

could be misleading: downloading at high speed a very

small file could result in the users not being aware of

the task being completed. In order to avoid this, the

system should “deceive” users. By showing, for

instance, a progress bar for more than the actual time

of download (as it happens on http://ge.tt).

9. Know thy user’s motivations

The system should help users to fulfill the motivations

behind its use and to satisfy basic psychological needs.

Enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met

some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire

but also gone beyond what he or she has been

programmed to do and achieved something

unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined

before [5].

The system should help users to fulfill their

motivations, then it will be more likely for them to

perceive the experience as enjoyable.

Moreover, when applicable, the system could help users

to have “basic psychological needs” [18] (need for

competence, autonomy and relatedness) satisfied as

well, thus resulting in an improvement of enjoyment

[4]. Then to allow an optimal user experience:

! the system should be designed by looking at final

users and the activity they seek to accomplish, this

means that you should know them first;

! but knowing all the possible users and activities is

impossible so, the system should be flexible in order to

adapt to various users for various activities and in

different contexts;

! when applicable, the system should help users to

satisfy the three basic psychological needs (in a broad

sense): need for competence, autonomy and


Facebook is a perfect example of a system that fulfills

motivations behind its use and satisfies basic

psychological need.

10. Conservative innovation

The system should be innovative (and conservative at

the same time).

Though innovation is not among the nine key principles

of Flow, in his studies Csikszentmihalyi found that what

all flow activities have in common is providing a sense

of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the

person into a new reality [5].

The system can enhance this “sense of discovery” by

actually implementing novelty and variety, by allowing

users to perform the activity in a more fulfilling way or

experiencing “something new”.

But at the same time the system should not be

completely different from existing systems, which serve

the same purpose. We approve of things that comply

with standards, things we are familiar with, and we

disapprove of things that conflict with standards [6].

Still according to Desmet et al.: “Standards are our

beliefs, norms or conventions of how we think things

should behave.” [6]. It follows that:

! the system should provide a certain degree of

novelty and variety to users;

! the system’s should be the result of a tradeoff

between innovation and tradition, where tradition is

meant as consistency with familiar systems and

compliance to standards;

! the system should ensure interoperability to

seamlessly integrate into the existing context.

Nowadays smartphones provide a good example. Multitouch

has been undoubtedly a breakthrough

innovation, but modern smartphone are “just” a

mixture of existing technologies people were already

familiar with (i.e. touchscreens were already used in

other contexts).


We presented a list of 10 heuristics, which we derive

from flow theory. We described how each flow

component applies to a HCI context and gave design

recommendations based on each heuristic.

We believe these heuristics can help interaction

designers deliver good user experiences. In flow

theory, not all of the flow components have to be met

for someone to experience flow. Similarly, not all

heuristics have to be considered in the same way in

order to design good user experiences. It is up to

designers to prioritize heuristics for each context in

order to produce the most engaging user experience.


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