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 13:04:23 -0800

kcronin -at- daleen -dot- com wrote:

I don't know - maybe I was raised thinking the Pepsi Challenge was a
pretty good testing technique: let people try various options and see
which they like best. Makes sense to my tiny mind.

But that's not neutral testing. If you're standing under a Pepsi banner, and maybe hoping to get something free (if only another drink), then you are under considerable, if unconscious, pressure in your choice. Moreover, the people conducting taste tests aren't trained n experimental techniques, and have no interest in neutrality anyway. As a result, unconscious cuing is very likely. So, from a scientific viewpoint, I don't find these tests very valid, even though they are a highly effective marketing technique (but then I think that all such drinks, in the immortal words of Milo Bloom taste like malted battery acid, so what do I know?).

While you both raise very valid points, I have to say that I've seen
EXTREMELY thorough and scientific arguments for serif fonts being the most
readable. Then I've seen equally compelling data supporting the opposite
stance. You can build up tons of evidence supporting *any* point of view,
it seems.
This means one of three things:

1.) Any difference is so small as to be immeasurable, or easily affected by small things, such as existing biases

2.) The testing techniques are inadequate.

3.) The concept is flawed.

I suspect the third answer is most important, although both of the other answers are probably factors, too. The more I learn about typography, the less sense it makes to me to compare serif and sans serif fonts in the abstract. WHICH serif fonts? WHICH sans serif fonts? That's what I want to know.

One of the main reasons I give this survey any weight at all is the fact
that it concerns ONLINE display of text. Not print. (Regarding print, I
think they've figured out what works best over the last few hundred years
- I don't have much problem reading text from any major hardcopy

From a typographical viewpoint, on-line fonts aren't as radical a departure as you seem to imply. For one thing, the change in medium doesn't change many of the considerations, just some of them. For another, typographers have been designing for signs and movie and television screens for years, all of which are analogous to the problems on screen. For that matter, title pages, ads, headlines. or LED displays aren't that different from on-line, either.

In other word, on-line viewing is a special case for typography, but no more so than many other design restraints are. Many of those who designed on-line fonts, such as those offered by Adobe, are equally skilled at designing fonts for the page. They don't require a major adjustment in their thinking.

There's a key difference with online text: the creators of documents
relinquish control to their users. Virtually all software allows you a
variety of ways to view text, from Word to Frame to the various Web
browsers out there. I don't know how you'd ever measure all the variables,
and if you did, so what? If YOUR readers do not set up their screen the
same way you do, your opinions and rules are for naught.

No argument. But the same point also invalidates any testing of fonts whatsoever. If users can control the font, why worry about which are more readable? The question becomes meaningless, and so do all issues of typography. If you're worried about typography at all, you have to assume a case in which you control the user's experience, such as a PDF file.

Yes, those highly subjective and poorly thought out responses will come
from average untrained amateurs. In my case (and I'd think many others),
that's MY target audience. I have yet to publish a piece geared
specifically at expert typographers. I guess if I ever did, they probably
won't like my work, based on your comments. Oh well.

The audience doesn't matter, and an expert typographer isn't concerned just with personal likes and dislikes. What the experts offer is an opinion that, if correct, should be true of all users, regardless of whether they have any knowledge of fonts or interest in them. If the opinion is wrong - and it easily could be, since experts aren't perfect and individual taste can become a factor - at least you have some reasons behind the opinion that allow you learn.
By contrast, in studies like the one that started this discussion, all you get is an uninformed opinion that may change the next time you ask. Unless the test is better organized and controlled than this one, the conclusions are meaningless and useless.

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

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