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"Violating Fit's Law" [sic]: Fitts' Law Beyond HCI Education


Abstract and Figures

Fitts' Law is, more often than not, thought of as standard knowledge in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. However, in many occasions, interface components are being built by professionals with little or no knowledge of HCI principles (e.g., software menus are often being built by software developers with no designer input). How much appreciation of Fitts' Law exists among developers, and how does it affect our collaboration with them and the software they build and we use? To help answer this question, a survey among 65 designers and developers was conducted, as well as an analysis of the Computer Science undergraduate curricula from 94 internationally high-ranked universities. The contribution of this paper is twofold: firstly, treating Fitts' Law as an Open Educational Resource and, secondly, the analysis identified gaps that extend beyond HCI Education and fall in the sphere of Epistemology.
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Violating Fit’s Law” [sic]: Fitts’ Law
Beyond HCI Education
Fitts’ Law is, more often than not, thought of as
standard knowledge in the field of Human-Computer
Interaction. However, in many occasions, interface
components are being built by professionals with little
or no knowledge of HCI principles (e.g., software
menus are often being built by software developers
with no designer input). How much appreciation of
Fitts’ Law exists among developers, and how does it
affect our collaboration with them and the software
they build and we use? To help answer this question, a
survey among 65 designers and developers was
conducted, as well as an analysis of the Computer
Science undergraduate curricula from 94 internationally
high-ranked universities. The contribution of this paper
is twofold: firstly, treating Fitts’ Law as an Open
Educational Resource and, secondly, the analysis
identified gaps that extend beyond HCI Education and
fall in the sphere of Epistemology.
Author Keywords
Fitts’ Law; HCI; Education; Epistemology
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g.,
HCI): Miscellaneous. K.3.m. Computers and Education:
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Evangelos Kapros
Learnovate Centre, Trinity
College Dublin, The University
of Dublin
Unit 28, Trinity Technology &
Enterprise Campus, Pearse
Street, Dublin 2, Ireland
We all know what Fitts’ Law is. Or do we? The answer
may depend on who “we” are, and on how we
understand scientific laws. Fitts’ Law is a sine qua non
in HCI Education. However, manyif not most
practitioners in the field would not have undertaken
traditional HCI Education: they would originate from
either non-technical backgrounds such as (non-applied)
psychology and design, or from engineering and
computing. The interdisciplinarity of HCI practitioners
has offered a great deal to the field, and many courses
in the aforementioned fields offer elective HCI modules;
however, it is not expected that a graduate of these
courses would be necessarily aware of what HCI is.
Working in groups where the majority of members have
little or no awareness of HCI can hinder communication
around a design problemor a proposed solution
thereof, and can potentially lead to designing for poor
user experiences.
Finding a balance between the desired
interdisciplinarity of a group and a mismatch in
understanding is no easy task. Difficulties are manifest
in a large sub-field of HCI, which is software
construction. The designer/developer workflow is a
constant example of workplace friction, and a rich
source of inspiration for imaginative start-ups that
produce tools promising to ease the workflow. While an
increasing number of organisations values design more
than in the past and the number of start-ups with
designer founders is reportedly increasing, the
conceptual mismatch in the designer/developer
workflow is still present.
In this paper, the aim is to consider Fitts’ Law as an
example of the designer/developer mismatch. Do
designers and developers perceive Fitts’ Law in
different ways? If yes, is this a result of HCI Education?
If not, what can be still said about the apparent
conceptual mismatch?
Related work
Fitts, after having worked for a number of years with
the U.S. Air Force on the psychological aspects of
aircraft displays [9], generalised his work on controlling
the amplitude of movement. His experimental work was
seminal and has resulted in a series of laws [10]. The
law describing how the response time of controlling a
target is proportional to the distance from and the size
of the target has been named the “Fitts’ Law” and been
considered as a law of paramount importance for the
field of Human-Computer Interaction [24].
Figure 1. A figure from the original Fitts’ experiment (Public
Domain) [10].
Fitts’ Law has played a big role in HCI research, as it
has been viewed through multiple lenses. It has been
shown that the Law holds for tablets; for hand-gesture
detection; for tracking certain eye movements; for
touchpads; for (some) motion kinetics; or for screen-
edge pointing [1, 2, 14, 16, 22]. It has been shown not
to hold for some radial menus [11]. It has been viewed
as a time/error tradeoff, as a research and design tool
in HCI, or as a research tool for the perception of user
performance [13, 15, 18]. Others have focused on the
specific variations of the formula that expresses Fitts’
Law [7]. A multitude of academic research articles and
blog-posts have been written about it.
Figure 2. A search for “Fitts” in the ACM Digital Library is
indicative of the popularity of Fitts’ Law.
With regard to the field of Education, previous research
has built upon traditional HCI for Education work to
show that research projects around experimenting with
laws such as Fitts’ one are beneficial to CS
undergraduate students [20].
More broadly speaking, some previous work describes
case studies where HCI has been integrated, in one
way or another, in a CS curriculum [4, 5, 6, 8, 12, 17,
19, 21]. The need for interdisciplinarity has been
emphasised; specifically, the joint ACM/IEEE CS 2013
curriculum especially recognises the need to “provide
students with the flexibility to work across many
disciplines” and to cover various knowledge areas in
introductory courses (it specifically includes HCI in both
Tier 1 and Tier 2, which is great) [23].
Thus, a study on the actual situation in CS curricula
seems to be necessary; is the recommendation of the
CS2013 curriculum to include HCI in Tier 1 Core
modules actually being implemented? Such a study is
presented below.
Fitts’ Law beyond HCI Education
A study on the inclusion of HCI in CS curricula should
try to address the following two issues. Firstly, do HCI-
related concepts appear in Tier 1 modules? Secondly,
what are the implications of not including HCI in core
HCI Education in CS Curricula
To investigate if HCI-related concepts appear in CS core
modules the following approach was followed.
Firstly, a list of universities was compiled by
triangulating the results of three prominent university-
ranking providers 1. The top 75 universities in CS from
the 2014 Shanghai Academic Rankings, the top 50
universities from the 2014 QS University Rankings in
CS and Information Systems, and the top 50
universities from the 2014-2015 Times Higher
Education ranking in Engineering and Technology. This
list yielded a list of 94 universities from 11 countries.
For the sake of simplicity (no political connotations
should be drawn from this!), universities from the EU
and Switzerland were filed under “EU” as they use the
structures of the European Higher Education Authority
(EHEA) and, similarly, universities from China and Hong
Kong were filed under “China”.
1 Disclosure: I participated in the 2014 QS World University
Rankings Survey as a respondent.
Figure 3: A graph of theskewed!distribution of the top
ranked universities for CS per country. Triangulating rankings
from three different providers composed the list.
For these 94 universities, their CS curricula were
located through their websites. One undergraduate
Bachelor’s or Major in CS program per university was
chosen to be included in the study. Computer
Engineering, Information Systems, Interaction Design,
or Multimedia Design programs were excluded, as they
are out of scope for this study.
Then, for each CS course the following information was
collected. Firstly, if the course offers an introductory
course to CS, in which various fields of computing are
represented. Possible answers are {yes, no,
programming}, where “yes” means that an
Introduction to CS exists and covers various CS fields,
“no” that such an introduction to CS does not exist, and
“programming” that an introduction to problem solving
exists, but is entirely focused on algorithmic thinking
and using a programming language. Secondly, data
were collected with regard to the course including HCI
topics in the introductory CS modules, as an obligatory
HCI module, as an elective module, or not at all.
Limitations in data gathering resulted in analysing 82
out of 94 programs. Some programs offered
information only in the native language of the country
where they are offered: machine translation helped
successfully with some of these, but not all curricula
pages could be located. Another limitation was the lack
of detailed descriptions in some courses, which may
have mentioned that they offer an introductory CS
course, but its syllabus is not publically available.
Finally, one website was not available due to technical
failures during data collection.
All effort was put into gathering the latest information,
namely for the 2014-2015 academic year. An apparent
weakness of this method is that it may identify current
patterns is curricula, but the direction towards these
curricula will be developed is not clear. Thus, a
university that currently considers moving to the
CS2013 curriculum, and one that does not, will appear
the same, if their current offerings are the same.
However, considerations to change the curriculum
towards CS2013 are rarely announced in public, making
such a data collection almost impossible.
The list of universities and the full data are available at:
The results of the data analysis are presented in the
next section. Before that, the following sub-section
describes the second part of the study around the
implications of excluding HCI from core CS curricula.
Designers’ and Developers’ Perception of Fitts’ Law
To define all implications of excluding HCI from Tier 1
CS courses in no easy task. For this reason, this study
is limited in identifying a small, but important, subset
of the HCI body of knowledge: its iconic Fitts’ Law.
The rationale originates from a real case in Learnovate
Centre around an educational software application. On
an in-house re-design of a content-composition
application for Windows 8.1 devices, a discussion arose
among our designers and developers around the design
and implementation of the navigation menu. The
original impression was that the native menu (see
Figure 4) had to be implemented, but eventually a
different mechanism was designed and implemented.
Figure 4. The navigation menu on the Microsoft Surface tablet device. This illustration uses a
mockup of the Windows 8.1 operating system.. Your images should be higher quality, so
readers can clearly see the details.
However, during the discussion around the native
menu, various web searches revealed that many
developers had a flawed perception about what Fitts’
Law is. This flawed perception seemed to have affected
the implementation of menus by the said developers.
Specifically, a perception that bad menu design
somehow “violates” Fitts’ Law seems to be particularly
popular. The discussion about how a menu “violates” or
“breaks” [sic] Fitts’ Law is taking place in popular
developer blogs and forums, and even in corporate
developer forums (in start-ups and multi-nationals
To validate the above, a survey related to Fitts’ Law
and menu design was designed and circulated to
designers and developers.
The survey consisted of a short introduction to Fitts’
Law, a question about whether the menu of Figure 4
“violates Fitts’ Law” [sic], and questions about the
occupation of the respondent, their gender, age, and
ethnicity. The demographic questions were not asked to
validate a pre-existing hypothesis, but rather to allow
for better data analysis.
The survey was circulated to various user groups
through email and social media (Twitter, and LinkedIn
SIGCHI and IxDA Groups).
The next section presents the findings from the CS
curriculum analysis and the survey.
HCI in CS Core Curricula
Out of the 82 analysed CS undergraduate curricula,
only 11 (~13%) follow the ACM/IEEE CS 2013
recommendation, and 4 (~5%) other universities offer
alternative options that also incorporate HCI in core
modules. The 11 universities that include HCI in their
Tier 1 employ different methods, ranging from briefly
mentioning HCI in their introductory CS courses, to
offering obligatory HCI modules. Alternative HCI
incorporations include designing UIs at projects, and
there is also a singular case where a CS program offers
modules from a Design Academy in its core
curriculumnot as a “dual degree” option (the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem offers a CS program with
Bezazel). A list of these institutions is below in Table 1.
Has HCI in CS
Institute of
The Hong Kong
University of Science
and Technology
University College
University of
University of
University of Tokyo
Australian National
Has HCI in CS
University of
Yale University
Rice University
Yes, but focuses
on Game Design
Georgia Institute of
Students can
take HCI while
on CS ‘Thread
Columbia University
Potentially in
The Ohio State
Potentially in
The Hebrew
University of
In CS program
with Bezazel
Academy of Art
and Design
Table 1. The 11 top-ranked universities that include HCI as
part of their core, Tier 1 CS undergraduate offering, as well as
the 4 universities that offer alternative paths in their CS
curriculum that may include some HCI in a core module.
The majority of curricula, that is 42 (~51%) of them,
offer HCI as an elective module, and do not mention
HCI in their core. However, in all 42 curricula of this
kind, it remains unclear why the student is expected to
elect HCI as a module: the field is not introduced at any
point, and it is unclear what mechanisms are in place to
motivate students elect HCI. Thus, students may
choose to attend the elective HCI module for
pedestrian, rather than academic reasons (e.g., a
lecturer of their liking, easier access to previous exams’
solutions, or similar).
Other institutions, more specifically 24 universities
(~29%), do not include HCI at all in their CS courses,
neither mentioned in an “introduction to CS” course nor
as an elective course. Moreover, an institution has an
HCI course in their course, but it is not offered in 2014-
2015 (see Figure 5).
Figure 5: The majority of top-ranked universities do not
mention HCI as a field in their core CS undergraduate
A geographical analysis of the results did not identify
specifically interesting patterns. In general, in the USA,
Australia, and Europe a variety of offerings has been
adopted, while Canadian, Chinese, Korean, and
Taiwanese institutions tended to follow one model
(offering elective HCI courses, or no HCI at all).
However, this difference may have been influenced by
the larger sample size for some countries than for
others, and should not be considered definite.
In conclusion, approximately 82% of the top-ranked
universities do not actively motivate future computer
scientists to further explore HCI, and 29% do not even
offer basic knowledge about what HCI is. Only 18% of
the institutions facilitate an informed choice with regard
to studying HCI.
Fitts’ Law Developers’ Perception Survey
Out of the 65 respondents of the survey, 19 (~29%)
replied that the menu of Figure 4 “violates” Fitts’ Law,
and 31 (~47) replied that it does not. 15 respondents
(~23%) typed in a response in the “Other” field, of
whom only 5 (~8%) respondents questioned the notion
of what it means to violate Fitts’ Law altogether (Table
not to
Table 2. Demographics for the 5 respondents who questioned
the notion of “violating” Fitts’ Law altogether.
Respondent #64 summarised nicely that: “I do not
know how Fitt's law can be violated if it is a function
that returns time.”
Respondent #28, the only developer who questioned
the “violation” notion, gave a practical example to
explain his rationale: “Say Zig's law is, a person who
chooses a center seat in a theater walks further than a
person who chooses an aisle seat. One person chose an
aisle seat. Is Zig's law violated? Absolutely not, a
person who chooses a center seat walks further than a
person who chooses an aisle seat. The law does not
apply to what decisions can or cannot made, it applies
to the consequences of those decisions. The particular
design decision made by Microsoft does not change the
fact that design decisions have consequences, and all
Fitt's law states is that design decisions have
consequences.” The other 3 respondents in Table 2 had
a similar line of thought.
Other respondents who typed in the “other” field but
didn’t question the “violation”, perceived Fitts’ Law in
different ways. A (male, designer, white, 35-44)
respondent (falsely) replied that Fitts’ Law is only
relevant in drag-and-drop operations, and not when
reaching a target: “Fits' Kaw is about the target (in this
case, where you drop the item) and not about the start
location” [sic]. A (male, white, 35-44) developer replied
that: “because it is an established pattern on mobile
i.e. to drag a menu or utility tray from the 'bezel', it
In general, developers were more likely to say that the
menu “violates” Fitts’ Law than designers (Table 3).
Moreover, developers were less likely to choose the
“other” option and type in their own answer.
With regard to other demographics, there were 12 male
and 3 female developer respondents, and 13 male and
8 female designers. Both designers and developers
were predominantly white, 11 developers (~69%) and
17 designers (~77%). Designers were slightly older
than developers. Moreover, it is worth noting that
female respondents were more diverse ethnically, and
with regard to age, and predominantly designers (60%
designers, 25% researchers, 15% developers).
Considering ethnicity, 2 out of 20 non-white
respondents (8 Asian/Pacific, 2 Black/African American,
7 Hispanic, 3 preferred not to answer) identified the
Table 3. Number of responses and
percentages per group for the survey
question based on Figure 4: “In your
opinion, does this drag-from-bezel
menu violate Fitts' Law?”
issue with “violating” the law, while 3 out of 44 white
respondents did (10% and 7%, respectively).
In conclusion, when presented with a concrete menu
design problem at hand, most designers and developers
who participated in the survey (~87%) did not question
the premises presented to them. Moreover, only 8%
achieved to re-frame the problem in a way that makes
sense from an HCI point of view.
At first glance, this seems to be a very limited result
about a specific law and how it applies to a particular
menu. However, it reveals underpinning misconceptions
about what a scientific law is and how it can be violated
(e.g., a boat floating on water does not violate the law
of gravity).
In addition, 82% of top-ranked universities have not
yet adopted the recommendations of [23] to include
HCI in their core CS undergraduate curriculum.
The effectively active epistemological misconceptions
about scientific laws and the lack of computer scientist
exposure to HCI may hinder the communication and
inhibit the understanding between HCI practitioners or
researchers and computer scientists, i.e., the very
people who, most of the time, implement the solutions
we design.
In the current times when a typical enterprise consists
of 15 people [3], an 8% of people able to re-frame a
problem in a scientifically appropriate way would mean
approximately 1 person per organisation. Given how
group dynamics work, a single person may find it
impossible to re-frame a related problem when
Of course, other factors may also exist, and further
research should consider design curricula, life-long
learning, and any related non-education factors.
Ultimately, this paper is not an attempt to list an
exhaustive list of factors, but rather to begin a dialogue
which will link HCI Education to actual CS curriculum
This research is supported by the Learnovate Centre at
Trinity College, the University of Dublin. The
Learnovate Centre is funded under the Technology
Centre Programme through the Government of Irelands
state agencies Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland.
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Interaction design (ID) as a field emerged in the late 1990s with roots in both the HCI and design communities. We ask whether the 'interdisciplinary' agenda of the 3rd paradigm of HCI can be accommodated in the traditional disciplined university. An alternate model of 'interdisciplinarity' offers one way forward, but calls for clarity on the question of what interaction design aspires to be. We offer the notion of 'disciplined transdisciplinarity' as an exciting and perhaps necessary way of solving the complex problems that ID researchers face, and illustrate this with examples drawn from the area of emotional design and assessment. Our bridge between 3rd paradigm, knowledge production and what we are calling 'disciplined transdisciplinary' yields insights into the path toward institutionalizing and legitimating research on ID and academic careers in this field in the university.
This paper studies how users perceive their own performance in two alternative user interfaces. We extend methodology from psychophysics to the study of interactive performance and conduct two experiments in order to create a model of users' perception of their own performance. In our studies, two interfaces are sequentially used in a pointing task, and users are asked to rate in which interface their performance was higher. We first differentiate the effects of objective performance (speed and accuracy) versus interface qualities (distance between elements and width of elements) on perceived performance. We then derive a model that predicts the amount of change required in an interface for users to reliably detect a difference. The model is useful as a heuristic for predicting if a new interface design is better enough for users to reliably appreciate the obtained gain in user performance. We validate the model via a separate user study, and conclude by discussing how to apply our findings to design problems.
Paul Fitts wrote the classic paper in 1954 that laid the foundations for one of the most successful laws in human-computer interaction. The Fitts Law guided users on the time taken to hit something, such as tapping a screen button. The law helped designers in making every interactive technology, ranging from iPhones to PCs, faster to use. The Accot and Zhai paper about the Fitts Law had a clever title that demonstrated the rules on letters. The Fitts Law continued to drive research, giving rise conflicting ideas and opinions. There were also several references to the incorrect Fitt's Law in the literature. MacKenzie's well-known paper was repeatedly cited in the literature as Fitt's law as a research and design tool in human-computer interaction. These problems could be avoided by using the compound noun form, as mentioned in the Fitts Law.
Conference Paper
Three methods of implementing the select operation on touchpads were compared. Two conventional methods -using a physical button and using "lift-and-tap" -were compared with a new method using finger pressure with tactile feedback. The latter employs a pressure-sensing touchpad with a built-in relay. The relay is energized by a signal Corn the device driver when the finger pressure on the pad surface exceeds a programmable threshold, and this creates both aural and tactile feedback. The pressure data are also used to signal the action of a button press to the application. In an empirical test with 12 participants, the tactile condition was 20% faster than l&and-tap and 46% faster than using a button for selection. The result was similar on the ISO-recomm ended measure known as throughput. Error rates were higher with the tactile condition, however. These we attriiute to limitations in the prototype, such as the use of a capacitive-sensing touchpad and poor mechanical design. In a questionnaire, participants indicated a preference for the tactile condition over the button and lift-and-tap conditions.
Conference Paper
Today's GUI interfaces require considerable visual attention for their operation. Consequently, interface events use up precious screen real estate and disenfranchise blind users from current software usage. If interfaces move to the realm of auditory and tactile designs, these problems are mitigated. However, it is not clear how much useful HCI research, par- ticularly performance time models, will transfer from the vi- sual to the non-visual. This paper attempts to answer a small part of this question by considering performance time mod- els for menu selection in a non-visual bullseye menu. We chose to study non-visual bullseye menus because we have found them to be highly useful in non-visual interfaces: they can serve as effective non-visual replacements for several vi- sual linear menus. MOTlVATlON Standard GUIs rely heavily on the visual modality, because it is an efficient and effective means of interaction between humans and machines. The PC of today includes a large CRT that can display high resolution graphics, but may not include high-quality speakers (or even a sound card) for emitting sounds. Tactile input/output device are not general- ly included either. One may think that the reason for the overwhelming popularity of visual interfaces and the rarity of non-visual ones is that non-visual interfaces are simply not needed in today's mainstream applications. We argue that non-visual interfaces are indeed needed, for several im- portant reasons.