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View from Here: A Recipe for Usability

On my way to the office on World Usability Day 2006, I was listening to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program Sounds Like Canada, where show host Shelagh Rogers was airing a segment with award-winning cookbook author Margaret Dickenson. Dickenson, who entertained around the world as the wife of a Canadian ambassador, is a home economist and culinary professional, but did not let that get in the way of connecting with her audience. Dickenson talked about how she made her cookbook more usable—without using industry jargon such as “usability” and “user-centered design.”

book cover
Margaret’s Table- Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining, published by Margaret’s Sense of Occasion. The book was selected as Best Cookbook in the World on Entertaining (2006), with the award to be presented at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Beijing, China, in April 2007. For more information, see

Dickenson discussed how she asked representative audience members—notably, her daughter—for advice on how to structure the recipes, and how she got back a lot of ideas and tips about what types of information to include in the recipes themselves and about things peripheral to the recipes, such as storage guidelines, make-ahead dishes, alternative ingredients, and icons that indicate “Grillable” or “No Time/No Talent” status.

Imagine my delight at listening to a show about usability—a topic very much on my mind on World Usability Day. It was serendipitous, I’m sure, as I doubt that anyone locally informed the CBC about World Usability Day—I certainly hadn’t thought of it—and so it was all the more interesting at this juncture. Given the circumstances, I thought it only appropriate that I try some of the recipes; upon arriving at the office, I ordered From the Ambassador’s Table—Blueprints for Creative Entertaining.

When the book arrived, I idly flipped through, delighting in the photography—evidently done by the author’s husband—and noting the multiple points of entry for the hostess, the shopper, the evening’s chef, and the person in charge of setting the table (who, I knew from the radio interview, was often the ambassador himself). Dickenson has obviously worked hard to turn what could otherwise be simply a book of recipes into a book that creates an entertainment experience for both hosts and guests. To do so, the book guides the user through the big-picture decisions and the successively smaller decisions that support the larger ones.

In the table of contents, first come the Blueprints: decisions around menu planning, etiquette for seating plans, centerpieces, items to have on hand, and food preparation schedules. Then come the Menus: basic menus, complete menus, and menus based around themes and meal type (lunch, formal dinner, informal dinner, barbecue, etc.), followed by the Recipes by category. Finally, the recipes used throughout the book, such as sauces or pastry dough, are grouped together at the back.

Each theme menu is shown in a full-color, double-page spread that not only shows the finished table but provides tips for tablescapes; the spread is a kind of cheat sheet for elegant dining. Of course, there is an index—two, actually: one by recipe type, the other a more traditional index, with most recipes listed by name and again by main ingredient. I would have liked a bit more thoroughness in the general index, but this is a minor shortcoming compared to the hints and tips throughout the book.

Dickenson’s recipes are deceptively simple, and accompanied by hints and tips for the novice cook. She goes so far as to explain her measurement system—measurements vary marginally around the world—and gives an example of a measurement in action to clarify her intent.

You can experience an example of Dickenson’s style at where you can find her recipes for Cranberry Nut Clusters (a “No Time/No Talent” recipe), Chili Crusted Salmon (“Barbecue Friendly”), and Zesty Ginger Mayonnaise/Sauce (another “No Time/ No Talent” recipe). They look splendid, taste great, and do take almost no time (or talent) to make when you follow Dickenson’s simple instructions. No wonder these won “Recipe of the Year—Published” in the Cordon d’Or Cuisine—Gold Ribbon International Annual Cookbook and Culinary Arts Awards. It is obvious that Dickenson has spent considerable time honing her skills and techniques, and has done her readers a favor by sharing them.