On fonts and dyslexia

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is around using special fonts for people with dyslexia.

There has been a lot of stuff about dyslexia friendly fonts over the years starting with comic sans, read regular and most recently with open dyslexic and dyslexie. There are various claims made as to their efficacy.

Here are samples of the two most common fonts aimed specifically at dyslexia

Sample of Open DyslexicSample of Dyslexie Font.

They certainly attract a lot of attention in the press and on social media.

I know they are trying to be helpful but I don’t like them or find them helpful.

As a dyslexic person I find myself reacting very negatively to them not just because they are portrayed as a panacea but because they are not to my taste. They are very clunky and unattractive.

On a (screen) tablet,pc or phone I have a preference for well spaced highly legible text on a just off white background as I find that the glare from pure white slows me down.

Other people will have other preferences. This is important.

Allow people to chose – don’t assume that what works for one will work for another.

This study would appear to show that they are not as effective as they claim.
http://www.luzrello.com/Publications_files/assets2013.pdf

Here is a link to Adrian Roselli’s write up from CSUN on research findings presented there.

http://rosel.li/031415

The article below is a good balanced read from a typography point of view.

http://www.commarts.com/Columns.aspx?pub=6950&pageid=1785

It’s commonly accepted amongst the UK dyslexia community that sans serif fonts are preferable on a screen see the British Dyslexia Association pages:
http://bdatech.org/what-technology/typefaces-for-dyslexia/

However layout contrast and font size are at least as important if not more so than the font choice. Configurability and personal preference are therefore key.

Signage fonts generally are designed with legibility and intelligibility in mind and there has been a lot of research into creating good ones. They have to work for people who’s brains are already under significant cognitive load from driving.

The award winning gov.uk uses a signage font “New Transport”
Sample of New Transport

And a personal favourite of mine (including the research) wayfinding sans
http://ilovetypography.com/2012/04/19/the-design-of-a-signage-typeface/

Example of wayfing sans

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Design choice is more than just about taste. It’s an accessibility issue.

This post was written as my contribution to Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD).

You can find out more from the GAAD website or searching the #GAAD hashtag.

The Day Job

I spend a lot of time dealing with the technicalities of making stuff work with Assistive Technology (AT). If I’m honest even more time in meetings dealing with the organisational politics surrounding it and giving talks on the technicalities whys and wherefores of making stuff work with screen readers, magnifiers and other ATs like Dragon and Texthelp. This is probably pretty familiar stuff to many of my readers and colleagues. It’s recognisably accessibility work and it’s work that I am proud to do.

The Second Job

However, recently I have been spending some spare time as a contributor to the Cognitive Accessibility Taskforce for W3C and this has caused me to reflect on my own needs and preferences for using technology. I’ve long been passionate about UX and usability and talked about the overlap between the disciplines but I’m currently reading a lot on cognitive load.

I have dyslexia and whilst I do make use of AT it isn’t my main way of interacting with technology. Often I am just using a smartphone tablet or laptop and interacting with apps and websites.

Poor working memory and difficulties with sequencing play a significant role in making life challenging. Both individually and collectively they reduce my ability to deal with and make sense of information – cognitive load – or in my case overload.

Up until about 18 months ago I was a pretty happy guy.

I liked my apps I loved my iPhone, iPad and my Nexus and Windows 7 felt comfortable and familiar.

Metro changed everything.

The new Microsoft UI that debuted with Windows phone 7 was certainly different. I wanted to like it but the more I used it the more I hated it. From the day glow tiles and unfinished words running off the screen to the flatness of it. It was just plain hard to use, downright confusing. I avoid using windows 8 touch screen UI for the same reasons.

iOS7 makes me want to cry.

It may well be the most accessible mobile OS in terms of inbuilt AT but it is a real step backwards for users with cognitive difficulties such as dyslexia.

Johnny Ive won his battle against the skeuomorphs and the resulting iOS 7 is flat skinny and by turns blinding glaring white with poor contrast and skinny fonts. The UI is confusing – and frequently pulls the rug from underneath you. You may have been bored with “lickable buttons” book binders and leather textures but at least I could make out when something was a button or required action.

Studies have shown that iOS7 places a higher cognitive load on users than it’s predecessor. I make more mistakes, recover from them more slowly and feel tired from the stress of the extra effort of using it.

7.1 has added the ability to reduce the glare and make the buttons more obvious, it’s an improvement but I still find it easier to use the unfashionable iOS6.

The App ecosystem exacerbates and amplifies the problem.

App developers and web designers are also following the trend so that their products have a consistent look and feel. Everywhere I look is going flat and skinny and my heart sinks every time I see an update.

I am not saying all flat design is bad.

Great flat design can be simple clean and satisfying to use but a lot of flat design feels abusive to me as a user and who wants to use an app or service that makes you feel stupid?

Look back to the POUR principles of WCAG 2.0

The POUR Principles are: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust . The W3C explain the principles here
If I can’t make out whether something is a button or cannot read stuff I can’t operate it as intended.

My plea.

Please do the stuff to make your product accessible to ATs and then think about the cognitive load you are placing on your users when you choose colour schemes and icon sets – what you think of of as the design is for me and millions of others like me an accessibility issue. If you really want to go with a certain look and feel – make it the default and offer user the option to customise it to meet their needs.