Re: Online fonts and sizes -- new usability study

Subject: Re: Online fonts and sizes -- new usability study
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 23 Jan 2002 09:37:23 -0800

kcronin -at- daleen -dot- com wrote:

microscopic studies of all the
variables would be a waste of time.

No, it would have been a properly conducted study, instead of a sloppy one. Unless you control the variables, how can you be sure that people are responding to the font, rather than the line length or leading?

I've looked at more detailed studies led by super-anal typography experts,
but I'm frankly more interested in what Joe or Josephine Average likes to
see on their screen. Their likes and dislikes are more instinctive, and
less skewed by "typographic philosophy" (for lack of a better term).

You're assuming that average people know what they're responding to. This is often a large and unwarranted assumption.
For one thing, the average person is more likely to respond favorably to the familiar than to judge everything impartially. If you've ever done any usability testing, you'll find that this is a big problem. For example, you'll now find that many regular computer users believe that the start menu should be in the lower left hand corner, because that's where Windows put it. Yet, if you do usability testing with new computer users, you'll find that the start menu is easiest to find in the upper left corner. In fact, Microsoft found exactly these results in early testing of Windows 95, but didn't change the positioning, probably in an effort to avoid looking too much like the MacOS.

For another, the average person isn't interested in type, so how careful are the judgements likely to be?
More importantly, as anthropologists have long been aware, it's important to note not only what people say is happening, but also what is actually happening; the difference is frequently greater than you might imagine. For example, in this case, people might say that they favour one font, but their eye motions and reading speed might indicate that they actually find another font easier to read.

I'm not sure what you mean by "typographic philosophy," but, in my experience, typography experts are the only ones able to do more than register a vague preference. They can say, for instance, that a font is more readable because its strokes are even, or its bowls are rounded. They may not always be right, but at least they have reasons for their opinions that can be discussed - and, through these discussions, you can reach some general conclusions about what characteristics make up a readable font. That alone makes their opinions worth having.

Bruce Byfield 604.421.7177 bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com

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To fell the wind and hear the diesels roar,
One more ride, to dream when I was younger
But dreams count for nothing anymore."
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