Usability of a patient education and motivation tool using heuristic evaluation

J Med Internet Res. 2009 Nov 6;11(4):e47. doi: 10.2196/jmir.1244.


Background: Computer-mediated educational applications can provide a self-paced, interactive environment to deliver educational content to individuals about their health condition. These programs have been used to deliver health-related information about a variety of topics, including breast cancer screening, asthma management, and injury prevention. We have designed the Patient Education and Motivation Tool (PEMT), an interactive computer-based educational program based on behavioral, cognitive, and humanistic learning theories. The tool is designed to educate users and has three key components: screening, learning, and evaluation.

Objective: The objective of this tutorial is to illustrate a heuristic evaluation using a computer-based patient education program (PEMT) as a case study. The aims were to improve the usability of PEMT through heuristic evaluation of the interface; to report the results of these usability evaluations; to make changes based on the findings of the usability experts; and to describe the benefits and limitations of applying usability evaluations to PEMT.

Methods: PEMT was evaluated by three usability experts using Nielsen's usability heuristics while reviewing the interface to produce a list of heuristic violations with severity ratings. The violations were sorted by heuristic and ordered from most to least severe within each heuristic.

Results: A total of 127 violations were identified with a median severity of 3 (range 0 to 4 with 0 = no problem to 4 = catastrophic problem). Results showed 13 violations for visibility (median severity = 2), 38 violations for match between system and real world (median severity = 2), 6 violations for user control and freedom (median severity = 3), 34 violations for consistency and standards (median severity = 2), 11 violations for error severity (median severity = 3), 1 violation for recognition and control (median severity = 3), 7 violations for flexibility and efficiency (median severity = 2), 9 violations for aesthetic and minimalist design (median severity = 2), 4 violations for help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors (median severity = 3), and 4 violations for help and documentation (median severity = 4).

Conclusion: We describe the heuristic evaluation method employed to assess the usability of PEMT, a method which uncovers heuristic violations in the interface design in a quick and efficient manner. Bringing together usability experts and health professionals to evaluate a computer-mediated patient education program can help to identify problems in a timely manner. This makes this method particularly well suited to the iterative design process when developing other computer-mediated health education programs. Heuristic evaluations provided a means to assess the user interface of PEMT.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Asthma / rehabilitation
  • Child
  • Feedback
  • Humans
  • Influenza Vaccines
  • Learning
  • Motivation*
  • Parents
  • Patient Education as Topic / methods*
  • Peer Review / methods
  • Software
  • User-Computer Interface*


  • Influenza Vaccines