Today’s modern application and web designs revolve around one single thing: delivering an excellent user experience (UX). There’s plenty of conjecture on the meaning of that term, but broadly defined, UX refers to all of the aspects of a design that affect usability, engagement, or visual appeal. In short, it’s all about making a user comfortable and satisfied. It’s become such an important concept that even the U.S. Government has gotten into the act.
If you take the time to research the current best practices in UX, you will soon notice that many of the concepts involved revolve around the visual elements of designs. That’s an obvious outcome in application and web design since they are primarily visual mediums. There is one major visual aspect of UX that isn’t discussed much, though, and it’s arguably the most used and important – fonts.
The Importance of Fonts
Fonts, or typefaces, were part of one of the most important inventions in human history, the mechanical printing press, which appeared around the year 1400. Standardized typefaces allowed machines to be used to print large volumes of text for the first time, eliminating the laborious process of manual copying by hand. It didn’t take long for someone to realize that the style of the original typeface, called black letter, could be improved to enhance readability.
By 1464, the Roman typeface was born, and it spread quickly throughout the printing industry. That event represents the first time that a font gained acceptance by improving UX. Since then, the study and development of typography grew into a vital and evolving part of design across a wide variety of industries. In today’s environment of connected devices and smartphones, font choice can be a make-or-break decision for UX designers.
Text and The Modern UX
Text is an integral part of just about any UX design one can conceive.
It’s the primary and most direct way to convey information to the user and provide content and value for a satisfying experience. The problem is, users don’t seem to like reading too much. A study in 2008 reached the startling conclusion that only 20% of the text on a web page is likely to be read by a user during a typical visit. That demonstrates that user attention is at a premium. To ensure a positive UX, anything that can be done to improve upon that average is worthwhile.
The most direct way that designers can encourage users to read text at a higher rate than the dismal 20% average is to make it as easy and enticing as possible to do so. Scientific studies have proven that font size has a direct effect on emotional responses and overall attention levels that users have for a given text. Other research has also demonstrated that there’s an optimal configuration for line length and font size as well. Studies have revealed that lines containing between 50 and 75 characters in a 16 point font work best on desktop designs, and that mobile designs shouldn’t exceed 40 characters.
Fonts Affect User Perceptions
Besides the fact that font choices are a direct way of influencing how much a user will be willing to read in a given design, they also play a role in how users perceive themselves while reading. For example, a study of the Psychophysics of Reading determined that users were able to read and understand text printed in a sans-serif font faster than the same text printed in a serif font, but that they felt that they had done better while reading the serif font samples.
UX designers can make use of this information when deciding whether to prioritize raw readability or user perception when choosing fonts for various parts of a design. For example, information that is detail-rich may require the use of a sans-serif font, while a serif font might work better for areas that are designed to have a greater impact on users. There’s no right or wrong choice to make, but it is a perfect example of the way that font choice can impact UX.
In retrospect, it should be obvious that font choice is a major factor in UX design. Text plays such a big role in the dissemination of information and is a rather large part of the modern human visual experience. As time goes on, and larger studies continue to explore the specific impact of font choices on UX outcomes, more designers will begin to focus on fonts as a foundational aspect of solid UX design. When the attention of the UX industry comes to focus on fonts, as many industries before it already have, there’s also a good chance that we may see the birth of another revolution in the look of the printed word. If that happens, it will represent the latest evolution of the ancestor of all modern UX design, the venerable and indispensable font.