TikTok: a Heuristic Evaluation

The social media giant is trending — but is it usable?

In recent years TikTok has taken the world by storm, fulfilling volatile attention spans with short form mobile videos and delivering curated content straight to users’ pockets. Despite the craze among mine and younger generations I avoided giving in to the social media platform thus far, and decided to conduct a heuristic evaluation for my first onboarding and exploration of the platform, specifically following Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics.

1. Visibility of system status

Arguably TikTok’s most important feature, its video recording screen is a solid demonstration of Nielsen’s first usability heuristic. As you make your recording, the blue bar at the top of the screen fills in and the record button pulsates, reminding the user of the video system status. Although I don’t think these elements are visually accessible and could benefit from more explicit labels, I thought it was intuitive for users with some app familiarity. There are a few other examples of this heuristic that stood out to me, and notably I found it interesting that the “For You” homepage has endless scroll and gives the illusion that the “top” or “bottom” of the page does not exist, and is not marked by any kind of scroll bar. Even the iOs status bar is hidden, for the full Hotel California effect.

2. Match between system and the real world

Because TikTok is at the forefront of video content creation among social media platforms, and has been innovative in its use of filters, editing and music, it has of course developed its own internal lingo. This includes distinguishing users as “creators” who are able to “duet” or “stitch” videos collaboratively with other “creators”, or upload original videos using “sounds”, “templates” and “effects”. Despite these new terms, TikTok does a thorough job of including tooltips and short descriptors throughout the platform, educating users as they get started.

3. User control and freedom

Allowing a user to exit unwanted tasks and recover from their mistakes is hugely important to good user experience. While TikTok does allow their creators to “x” out of many of their screens, the app also supports some video playback and editing functionality which does not currently exist on competitive social media platforms. I can imagine for content creators that having the control to discard and retake a clip, seemingly unlimited times, is an excellent timesaver and allows them to spend more time creating new content instead of editing old.

4. Consistency and standards

TikTok has gracefully ridden the coattails of Snapchat, Vine and Instagram into the hands of the smartphone generation. With such power comes great responsibility, and TikTok has done well to observe design practices and familiar patterns to promote easy transition and learnability onto its platform. Although we mentioned internal language in Heuristic #2, much of the app’s phrases like “mentions”, “followers”, and “hashtag” are terms that their users are likely already familiar with. Furthermore, the swipe navigation and account layout are no doubt reminiscent of competing apps to ensure consistency and standards across the board.

5. Error prevention

TikTok’s platform does not lend itself to very many user errors, and has done a good job of limiting user actions to reduce potentially “fatal” mistakes. Since content consumers are only able to like, comment on and share videos, TikTok has managed to successfully constrain them and maneuver this heuristic to prevent errors. For content creators, it seems as though the editing and filtering options are limitless, but still yield to pretty straightforward “to post or not to post” decision making, further streamlining their options as users.

6. Recognition rather than recall

This heuristic was one I thought was particularly well executed in the app. Providing a list of interactive bubbles with “interest” ideas makes it easier for users to make a few selections instead of getting stuck trying to think of something on the spot, and adding emojis provides some visual relief and gives the user an idea of what they can expect. Additionally, when adding sounds to original videos, TikTok’s music library organizes and recommends trending songs and allows you to save and choose from your favorites so you never have to think too hard about the tune you want to use.

7. Flexibility and efficiency of use

While there are various features and interactions that I’m surely not yet advanced enough to have mastered, TikTok’s approach to their search functionality was truly impressive to me. TikTok saw your dynamic autocomplete, set with user verification and imagery, and raised you dynamic autofill (or whatever term their team has cooked up). As you search, you are able to send one of the autocomplete prompts straight to the searchbar AND continue typing your query; a strategy I’ve never seen before that no doubt improves efficiency for long winded search terms.

8. Aesthetic and minimalist design

To be frank, TikTok is not a “minimalist” app. Every which way you swipe seems to reveal a new page or feature, and buttons and elements float on top of one another and take a minute to get accustomed to. That said, from my very brief time on TikTok so far, it does seem that every thing has its place and is embraced by the TikTok community, and I can appreciate that features are not placed arbitrarily but seem to have a rhyme and reason that make sense to their users.

9. Help users recognize, diagnose and recover from errors

Like I mentioned earlier in “#5: error prevention”, I didn’t find very many examples of potential errors users could make and thus would need to recover from. In this way, TikTok has done a solid job of keeping its creators within the confines of its creation, and needs very few additional guardrails to guide them back to the light. That said, along with help and documentation, TikTok is inundated with help resources and tooltips to get its users back on track when necessary.

10. Help and documentation

If TikTok is thorough about anything, it’s their help and documentation resources for their creators. Not only does the app walk new users through interactive onboarding, but it also reveals subtle reminders in the first few screens to help creators get situated. On top of that, there are a multitude of help resources spanning various topics, tooltips, and even a “Creator Portal” that includes blog articles to help creators get started and start producing content on their own.

Overall I was impressed by the functionality TikTok offered and how quickly it managed to suck me in; I certainly am not a heuristics expert nor a TikTok regular but this was a fun first pass at usability heuristics!

This heuristic evaluation is part of an 8 week UX Design class under a Master of Professional Studies at MICA. I am not affiliated with TikTok or any other business mentioned here.

UI Designer @ Yext. Aspiring artiste and devastatingly underprepared