Monday, March 29, 2010

Fitts’s Law and Usability of Gmail

Fitt’s law (Simplified):
"Put commonly accessed UI elements on the edges of the screen. Because the cursor automatically stops at the edges, they will be easier to click on. [And then] Make clickable areas as large as you can. Larger targets are easier to click on."
The law is rather simple (or, one might argue, too simple to follow all the time). This is basic common sense. Human Interfaces of computer system typically are a subject matter of Fitts’s law.

A FEW YEARS AGO I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY to attend a workshop with Mr. Aaron Marcus. The veteran man is an industry expert on usability and the designer of the original Nokia cell phone’s user navigation system. Cell phones were a niche product in early 2000's and not much data was available to ascertain how users would react to such an operating system of such a hand-held device.

Mr. Marcus had a variety of ideas and principles to talk about at the workshop on the subject of Software systems and their usability aspects. He began his presentation with some of the photographs that he had captured in the fruits and vegetable markets of Africa. He argued that the rural ladies selling these goods were very less likely to have got primary education. However, looking at the grouping and arrangements of goods that they were selling – lemons, figs, chewing sticks and others – one could observe that all of it adhered to some of the basic though indigenous design patterns. The largest objects were kept at arm’s length; groups of smaller objects were kept at the centre; there was a hierarchy around freshness of the goods; and finally, the whole arrangement was then utilized in bargaining and negotiations. There may not be primary education, but there was some common sense.

Mr. Marcus argued that the same basic senses also drive ergonomic of products and systems.


More recently, a few days ago when Scott Adam smacked Google design team for their unintuitive and flawed design of their web-based emailing system Gmail, there was a lot of hue and cry from die-hard Google fans. Dilbert blog was swarmed with protesting comments, unthoughtful that they were in most cases.

Last week, Jeff Atwood picked up the similar thread and did an interesting study with illustrations by citing two examples from Gmail, and one from Facebook. The point is well made. The eject button is surprisingly lost in the woods of the so called Google Operating System. As one of the friends put it, to log onto Gmail after pubs on weekends is asking for trouble – the arrangements and margins between buttons leave no margin for error and your mailbox could be messed up pretty badly when you notice next morning.

A recent illustration by National Geographic Magazine argues that the success of Google Orkut social networking website in India and Brazil was primarily based on is simple design. While the larger user-base in these geographies use low bandwidth connectivity, it is also to be considered that these are non-native English speaking users where simpler layout of the website design shall work better. A lesson the rest of product team at Google may be overlooking.


Mr. Marcus had concluded that in the years to come, the primary selling point of products would be ‘emotional’ triggers and attachment towards that object. “I love this watch”, shall supersede form and function, utility and usability, value and cost of the watch. And that indeed is coming out to be true, for here we are, with Social Media, declaring our likes and dislikes and associating our choice of products around it.


  • See also:
  • Go here for the clomplete post: The Opposite of Fitt's law
  • Go here for NGM survey of Social Media tools
  • Go here some of the best Usability tools that employ eye-tracking for current rich media contents of Web 2.0
  • Go here for a very interesting series by Smashing mag on Story-telling as User experience. Note that while there is no direct relation to Usability per say, it has the final inkling from the user's side.

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