Archive for March, 2009

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXVIII

Roman numerals are great for game titles, and that’s about it.

There are a few reasons I saved this one for last. First, I titled all my posts with Roman numerals knowing I would be ironically denouncing them at the end. Second, the number 28 uses more characters than the first 27, and it helps prove my point when I have to type six characters instead of two in the title. And finally, it’s been quite a month typing one entry per day on topics I can be pretty obsessed with, and I thought a lighter subject like this would be a good way to finish it off.

Roman numerals fell out of vogue several hundred years ago, replaced primarily by the Arabic numbers we use today. The advantages of Arabic numerals over Roman are many. For one, Roman numerals use only three characters to depict every number until 40 (the added character, L, means 50, but the character itself is used in the number 40), and then a new character is added only a handful of times until reaching the largest character, M, representing one thousand (although, as with L, M is used in writing 900, which is 100 less than M represents). So, writing each number from 1 to 899, a scant six characters are used, resulting in long strings of characters to express numbers often less daunting than their characters make them out to be.

Another disadvantage to Roman numerals is the inconsistency with which increasing numbers are portrayed. While our Arabic numbers get longer as the value goes up, some simple additions with Roman characters, such as 98 to 100, seem to shrink considerably in size: from XCVIII to XCIX to C. This inconsistent correlation of numbers to characters makes it difficult to judge the size of a number by its length.

Because the largest number assigned a character in the Roman numbering system is 1,000, it would be difficult to show numbers used when discussing scientific matters, such as the age of the earth, the distance from here to Neptune, or the number of molecules in a cheese sandwich. Because Roman numerals add to themselves rather than multiply, the way our current numeric system works, a row of eight Ms would equal 8,000, while a one followed by just as many zeros would equal one hundred million. This also means scientific notation, our system for representing gigantic numbers with superscript exponents, is out of the question with Roman numerals.

And on top of all that, the Roman numeral system had no zero. So while there was no way to give an accurate depiction of the size of a piece of sand, there was also no number that would describe it to be essentially nothing.

Why am I even talking about all this? Are we in danger of an uprising of this archaic numbering system? Probably not, but there are times where Roman numerals are used in the interest of artistic license, despite their awkward and inadequate ways. Probably the few most common uses still employed today are in series of movies, books and video games, as long as the series doesn’t go much further than a dozen installments, and clock faces, most notably Big Ben.

Not only are these numerals foreign enough to hinder recognition in the first place, but here they’ve been further designed into obscurity as to render the numbers completely unreadable. The V appears to be II, and the X looks like I with a small line through the middle. Clocks like this are found in many places–there was one on my living room wall when I was a kid–and most aren’t much easier to read, even close up. But since most people are familiar with the placement of these numbers without having to read them–and, as Swatch proved in the ’80s, the numbers don’t even really have to be there at all–it’s not necessary to read the numbers, just the position of the hands relative to the top of the clock. Apparently using more legible Arabic numerals, while expediting the whole point of having a clock in the first place, just wouldn’t be as beautiful.

Many video game series use Roman numerals for each sequel beyond the first release. Because the need to quickly identify a game’s place in a series based on its cover rarely becomes an ordeal, this usage presents much less of a problem than when used on clock faces. And because most game series usually come to an end before getting into the teens, large lines of Roman characters hardly overwhelm the title. One series quickly approaching that threshold is Square Enix’s most popular franchise. Final Fantasy VI is a succinct title for a video game, while Final Fantasy XVIII (scheduled for release in 2016) is going to start feeling a little number-heavy. The Super Bowl, already well beyond the point at which most people can easily identify its title (this month marked number XLIII, or 43), shows how out of hand this usage can quickly become.

The same way sans serif typefaces are typically used as display fonts, Roman numerals serve, if anywhere at all, as display numbers. Trying to parse a string of Roman characters greatly impedes legibility in a block of text, but in small doses–and in small numbers–they’re acceptable as the titles of series, and very little else. Otherwise, they come across as pretentious and self-important, further detaching the writer from the reader.


28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXVII

No one system will make every user happy.

Judging by the sheer number of mobile phones, third-party plugins, variations of Linux and alternatives to Internet Explorer available, it’s clear that no one system can please every user. Reading through previous entries here, I assume I’m much harder to satisfy than most others (or at least louder about it), but I’m not completely alone. Everyone has a different philosophy on the ideal user experience, and while it’s impossible to cater to the needs and desires of every last user, it is possible to allow for customization and flexible interfaces.

I use Windows XP at home, but I’ve never liked the default XP theme, with its large buttons and rounded window corners. Yes, it’s more aesthetically pleasing, but takes up a bit more real estate on the screen and demands a bit more attention that the comparatively flat look and feel of previous Windows versions. (I think of the operating system as a launcher rather than a playground–I want it to support the programs I use, but I don’t need it to blow me away with its own graphics.) Luckily for people like me, Microsoft offers a reversion to the Classic theme, which also takes less of a toll on the CPU. I’m also not a fan of animated operating systems, such as the scrolling or fading Start menu, or the moving, fading, zooming functions in Mac OSX and Windows Vista. Again, these features can be disabled for users like me, who prefer a more efficient workflow over an aesthetically impressive one.

With user diversity in mind, Apple developed their App Store to make it easy for users to customize their iPhone experience. While the operating system itself is like nothing previously on the market, they knew the full potential of their product wouldn’t be reached without allowing downloadable applications and add-ons that take advantage of the multitouch screen, accelerometer and connectivity.

Adobe applications, like Photoshop and Illustrator, start with a default, consistent shortcut scheme for their functions–Ctrl + Z will undo an action, Ctrl + W closes a document–and users may set their own shortcuts in the Preferences menu. Adobe understands that some computers, especially in studios and offices, will often have multiple users, so declaring a shortcut key doesn’t override the default setup. This way, in typical Adobe fashion, there can be several ways to achieve the same result, improving the overall experience for those who are used to a specific setup without infringing on those who prefer the default settings.

While it’s not possible to predict the demands and preferences of every user, there are a few broad categories developers can anticipate most users falling into: those who will happily use the product the way it’s intended and expect nothing more, those who will be generally happy but want a little extra in terms of personalization, and those who stubbornly stick with a product–or give up on it–because of the product’s (and the user’s) inflexibility. Unfortunately, the first camp is rarely an overwhelming majority, and the latter is largely comprised of power users who are hardly ever happy with default settings and features.

With those in the middle group, users who would like something extra to enhance their experience, who may just be waiting for the next, slightly improved model to come along, customization is the key to ensuring a more loyal user base. Even after years of constant product testing, there’s no telling what might be the next social networking phenomenon or popular time-wasting puzzle game after a product is released, so allowing future updates and downloadable content should help keep a good chunk of customers from switching to a different product or service. In the short amount of time since the iPhone was released, websites like Pandora and Twitter have become increasingly popular among users; imagine how unfashionable it would be for Apple to have included a permanent Myspace button on the bottom of the iPhone.

It’s not bad that some people are stubborn, unyielding users who have definite expectations for human-computer interaction. What’s not so good is when those people become stubborn developers and let their compulsions get in the way of the interest of the user. The best way to reach a wide audience is to understand that no one system will make everyone happy, and allow enough customization to make users feel comfortable with the experience.



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