Fresh: ask Doctor Usability

XIII.4 July + August 2006
Page: 7
Digital Citation

The globalization malaise

Dr. Usability

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Dear Doctor Usability,

My boss makes me fly all over the world to exotic locations. I go to great, interesting places like Shanghai, Mumbai, Paris, Berlin, Seoul, London, Rio, and Sunnyvale. My problem is, all I ever get to see is airports, hotels, and office cubes, which, quite frankly, all look the same. I hate this. How can I get my company to give me more time off to enjoy the flavor of these world-class cities? It is driving me crazy going all over the world without truly experiencing it (except, of course, the dumplings at breakfast in Shanghai and lunch in Sunnyvale).

Cubed All Over the World

Dear Cubed,

You are missing the whole point of globalization. And you're missing some fine opportunities to make observations that could inform you about language, context, and meaning—the dumplings in Shanghai and the croissants in Paris aren't just food, they're cultural icons, and the people who serve them live in a different world than you (and they probably aren't racking up the frequent flyer miles you are, so what was that complaint again?). Quit whining and sneak out at night and explore. You might find out that everything that looks the same is very much not the same. When you come into work the next day with circles under your eyes, your offshore partners will just shake their heads and think, "Yes, those people from [wherever you're from] are workaholics." I am afraid people from certain countries and Hawaii won't get away with this (check your local listings to see if you apply).

And, I might add, you'd better keep the exotic stuff under your hat; you're supposed to be working. I would recommend you work pretty hard before some of these world-class cities decide to keep you the next time you visit. Of course, you don't have to worry about that in Sunnyvale, but somehow I think that is what you want most, if I read your letter correctly. And with that I believe I will have a cup of po li tea, because if this is Wednesday then I must be in Shanghai.

Dr. Usability

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Dear Dr. Usability,

The leader of my team thinks Fitts' Law is a great principle to design screens by, and he's forever comparing the Mac OS X menu bar to the Windows menu bar, and the MacOS X dock to the Windows task bar and tray. Please help—you're an authority. I need you to tell him that Macs are for losers. People cite the law but they do not know how to apply it.

Fitts to Be Tied

Dear Tied,

How nice of you to bring up Fitts' Law: The time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target.

This is usually idolized by people who loathe the Macintosh (Bruce Tognazzini's Mac menu bar argument, notwithstanding—if you're interested in Tog's take on the subject, see First, Macs aren't for losers; being a winner or a loser is a consensual claim—it's such a subjective argument it really doesn't warrant any further thought. Now that we've dispensed with that, let's not go into a fit over Fitts (sorry, couldn't help it).

Without going into the details—we did that already (see William Hudson's HCI & the Web column, "Fitts at 50: For Link Design, Size Does Matter," in issue XII.3)—Fitts' Law is not a scientific law or a design law. It is a design guideline, and following it, like following any other design guideline, is no guarantee that your screen will be usable for anything other than to demonstrate a design guideline. If by simply following a single guideline you could make a usable screen, then usability would be like a vending machine: Just put your data in the machine, insert guidelines, and out cranks the screens. The metaphor is tortured but the point isn't: Design guidelines are many in number; see the gestalt design guidelines for just a few hundred. The design guidelines you pick depend on your audience and your judgment. How you apply them is dependent on your analysis. You live or die by your design-analysis skills, not Fitts' Law, no go have a—okay skip it.

Anyway, that's my suggestion to you: Don't become troublesome by repeating yourself to those who no longer listen. Save it for when it matters!

Dr. Usability

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©2006 ACM  1072-5220/06/0700  $5.00

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