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A Framework for UX Audits

In every job I've ever had, I've eventually been asked to audit a website. The context around what kind of site and why I was auditing it varied, but the expectation was generally the same. The requestor was asking, "Can you look at this website and tell me what's probably working and what's probably not working for real people?"

Top-down view of a person's hands on a wood grain table. One hand is holding papers covered in graphs and charts and the other hand is typing on a tablet. Highlighters and pencils are visible to one side.
Photo by Firmbee on Unsplash

At first, this ask felt daunting. How on earth was I supposed to know what was working without looking at their Google Analytics or knowing anything about the company's goals? But after a while, as I learned more about how and why companies build websites, I realized there's quite a bit you can infer in a UX audit.

What is an audit?

Most of us think of the IRS when we hear 'audit' and that's not too far off base in a UX audit.

Screenshot of a search result definition that is a dark grey box on black background, showing the word audit, its phonetic pronunciation, and definitions for the noun form and the verb form.
The Oxford Languages definition for audit

A systematic review or assessment of something doesn't necessarily need extra information, like Google Analytics data - it can be done with just what materials are at hand. And like a review or assessment, the findings can be filtered through several different lenses. What was the auditor tasked with looking for?

Who the independent auditor is can also influence the type of audit returned. If we assigned one UX audit to a newly minted bootcamp grad, one to a UX designer, one to a UX researcher, and one to a veteran of the field, we'd get back four different UX audits of the same site.

Audit vs. Heuristic Analysis

Ah, but you've heard of Nielsen's 10 heuristics for evaluating websites - isn't that the same thing as an audit?

Kinda. Heuristics are a framework to aid in discovery; they help us get to conclusions quickly by relying on similarities in other areas of life. In Nielsen's heuristics list, you'll notice they regularly call back to 'real life experiences'. So Nielsen is using tangible objects to help create the framework for assessing intangible objects like websites and interfaces.

The difference between heuristic analysis and an independent audit is generality. Heuristics rely on general principles or rules of thumb derived from a broad sampling of examples or cases. An independent audit relies on the specific knowledge and expertise the auditor owns to uncover relationships in the system being examined.

Another way to frame it is like this:

Heuristics say, "A significant number of websites on the internet use a search bar in the nav, so we believe a search bar in the nav provides value."

While an audit says, "I know in my 15 years experience in UX that a search bar in the nav is useful, therefore I am concerned that I do not see one on this page."

When should we audit?

There are a couple key moments when a UX audit comes in handy. Here are a few examples:

  • when we're considering taking on a new client and are trying to assess how much work might need to be done to 'improve their website'

  • when we're comparing our current website to competitors' sites

  • when we join a new company and are asked to familiarize ourselves with the website (or asked if we have any thoughts on improving it!)

  • at regular intervals in a website's lifecycle - maybe every year or so - to make sure nothing is broken or to find opportunities for improvement

My Framework for a UX Audit

Quick reminder: just like Nielsen chose 10 rules of thumb to make his heuristic guidelines, this is my personal framework for conducting a UX audit. I'd encourage you to experiment with these points and see if there are more you'd add or adjustments you'd make to create your own framework.

I recommend starting on the homepage, and then continuing either page-by-page or diagramming a few common user flows (home > shop > filter t> item page > add to cart > checkout) and auditing those experiences. And this framework should be applicable to apps as well as websites.

  1. Hierarchy of content What is this company showing first? second? third? What's most important? what's least important? What are they trying to draw my eye to?

  2. Language and copy What words are this company using to describe their product or service? Which words or phrases seem unique to them? which are common to this industry? what's the frequency of unique language vs. industry language How easy is it to understand? where would I rank it on a reading scale?

  3. Imagery What kind of photos/images is this company using? do they belong to a certain category or style? Who's shown in the photos? who's not shown? What feel or impression do the pictures evoke? this can be described as an emotion, a color scheme, etc. How much is this company relying on visuals, or what's the ratio of copy to images?

  4. Animation and media Is this company using video, audio, and animation? if so, how? where? Is it too much, just enough, hard to find? Does it feel useful and relevant or purely decorative?

  5. Audience Who is this company talking to? What kinds of people would be attracted to this? Are they clear about their audience or trying to appeal to everyone? What factors lead you to this conclusion?

  6. Interaction and information architecture What does the website feel like from a new visitor's point of view? from a returning visitor's? would my mom or grandma be able to use this website? Is it easy to understand? is it obvious where to find specific things? Is it obvious what is clickable and what's not? What about navigation - is it clear and usable? how many clicks does it take to find something of interest? Could you sketch a sitemap if you had to? can you picture how the pages and information are structured for this website?

  7. Mobile If this is a website, how does it work on my phone? Is anything lost between desktop and mobile? Is there accommodation for interactive differences (ie: hover states, side scrolls, galleries, etc.)?

  8. Accessibility Look at the color contrasts, the typography sizes and spacings. Are there clear headers? Do photos have alt tags? Can you use it with a screen reader? Can you use keyboard controls to navigate the site? What happens if you zoom in the browser view? what happens if you change the browser size and shape?

What do you think? Has this cleared UX audits up or made everything murkier?

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