ATypI: All Eyes on Web Fonts (& Other Things)


Vikki Quick in Archive on September 16, 2011

I’m at ATypI, the type conference being held in Reykjavik right now, and I’m struck by the diversity of the presentations. Type is being dissected at every angle, from looking at new methods for manipulating font outlines during the typeface design process to discussing the “issues and perspectives in cross-cultural typographic communication.” Of particular interest was one talk, “The Subtle & Peculiar Lessons We Learned from Google Web Fonts Users” – the focus of this post.

Dawn Shaikh, senior user experience researcher at Google, and Mark Tobias Kunisch, also from Google and the lead user experience designer for the Google Web Fonts project, spoke about what they learned from a study conducted last winter on Web fonts users. Data was gathered from more than 50 Web fonts users, ranging from novice to experienced users.

Dawn Shaikh and Mark Tobias Kunisch of Google discuss a study on Web fonts users.

The study revealed that users are more likely to be dabbling in Web fonts than fully committing to them. Users are looking for high-quality fonts, “lots and lots” of fonts and complete font families for body copy. Users want to be able to input their own custom text to see how a font will look, and they want a fast, easy implementation, a try-before-you buy model, and the ability to print the fonts on paper to show to clients. Comparing fonts side by side is important to users, and they also like to be presented with font suggestions, but not subtle ones where they might be missed and not obvious ones that can feel condescending. Users want their Web font service to be a beautiful website that showcases fonts, with excellent organization of the fonts that work on all platforms, all browsers, all devices, all the time. Users also want an easy way to download fonts.

What do users not care about? The study showed that users don’t care about detailed statistics on font usage, or information about the font designers. The study also revealed that users aren’t looking for international fonts, although Dawn thinks a wider study with more international participants would change that view.

What are users concerned about? In the case of open source fonts, users are concerned about quality, missing characters and incomplete families. Users are concerned there are not enough high-quality typeface families that can perform well in mobile devices.

Further, users are also concerned about tagging. They’re suspicious because they’re not sure why a font would be tagged as “old-fashioned” or any other subjective or unclear term that may mean different things to different people. When selecting fonts, users currently favor narrowing a search and then viewing the designs – a filter then scroll approach.

What are some of thoughts on paying for fonts? Study participants had first tried Google Web Fonts for free and most had trial accounts with other services and go back and forth. There were mixed views on paying for Web fonts using a subscription model or as a single transaction. Users relate to the simplicity of a one-time charge but see it as limiting, since subscription plans provide access to a wide range of fonts at any time.

Users are unsure as to how to determine the value of Web fonts or how to measure their return. Users are also scratching their heads about how to educate their clients about Web fonts.

The study helped to shed light on what’s working – and what’s not – and has helped Google to employ user-centric methods to create a new user interface for browsing, selecting and using Google Web Fonts. The fact that Google is sharing results means the whole Web font community can benefit. It also confirms we’re still at the beginning of this shift in designing for the Web.

Click here to learn more about Google’s Web fonts research.


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