Dealing with Fitts' Law on widescreen displays

January 29, 2012

One of the usual sayings derived from Fitts' Law is that four of the five easiest locations to reach with the mouse are the four corners of the screen, because they require very little precision (the edges trap the mouse and guide it into the corner). Over the years I've made some modifications to my desktop environment to make better use of this principle. The most important one is how I use the top left corner; I have my taskbar equivalent arranged so that when an iconified terminal window gets output, I can just zoom my mouse to that corner and click in order to reveal the terminal window.

Zooming to a corner is a fast operation in most setups; it works fine on a single monitor, even a single widescreen monitor, and on a normal dual-monitor setup such as my work desktop. But recently (for reasons beyond the scope of this blog) my work setup got updated to dual widescreen monitors, which revealed two problems with my application of Fitts' Law in this environment.

The first problem is that the sheer number of side to side pixels in a pair of 1920x1200 LCD panels seems to be a bit too many to easily zoom a mouse across. My mouse pointer generally winds up in the middle of the right hand display; getting it to the top left corner of the left display was no longer anything like a little flick of the wrist. The second problem is that the top left corner was sufficiently physically far off to the side that it was no longer an easy casual action to glance at it to see if there was anything with new output that I needed to deiconify; I was less glancing off a bit and more peering off into the distance.

(I had my old dual displays relatively flat against each other, but I think that I probably need to move the new displays into a much more pronounced V shape.)

My current solution to this issue exploits Fitts' Law once again. The often-overlooked fifth easy to reach location is 'where the mouse is right now', or failing that 'some large area very near where the mouse is'. So I've created a new mouse button binding for my window manager; if the mouse is over the root window, hitting the left button with Shift+Control now de-iconifies the (alphabetically) first terminal window. My mouse is frequently parked over the root window and when it's not there's generally an exposed patch of the root window close to it.

(Technically the binding toggles the window's iconified state, which means that I can flip the first window back and forth from iconified to not. This is a great way to fidget.)

To deal with the 'too far to look' issue and to make things in my terminal windows taskbar easier to reach in general, I've repositioned it so that it's at the top left corner of my second (right) display; this puts it more or less in the center of my overall workspace and makes it easier to both reach and look at. I don't think this move away from a screen corner is a loss for Fitts' Law because everything except the first window already had to be targeted carefully.

Of course, now I just have to train myself out of a many years habit of reflexively looking and going to the top left of the left display. This shouldn't take too long, right?

(What I'd really like to do is duplicate my taskbar equivalent in the top left of both displays. Unfortunately this isn't possible right now with my window manager.)

PS: I experimented briefly with increasing the mouse acceleration (which would make everything effectively closer) but didn't like the effects it had on my ability to target things with the mouse in general; I kept overshooting and missing stuff. Possibly I would have acclimatized with time and I just gave up too soon.

Written on 29 January 2012.
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Last modified: Sun Jan 29 21:13:37 2012
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