Baskerville type specimen. Photo by James Puckett.

How fonts influence users’ perception of your product

Is Baskerville really the most trustworthy typeface you can use?

Graphic designers have always used typography to visually connote written language, conveying aspects like mood, personality and age. Many experiments have shown how different typefaces can make a message more or less trustworthy and appealing to readers. One of these experiments was conducted in 2013 by filmmaker and author Errol Morris and the New York Times. The results show that readers were more likely to agree with an essay if the font used was Baskerville, rather than other fonts such as Comic Sans and Helvetica.

Considering these findings, can we state once and for all that we should use Baskerville whenever we want to persuade our audience? The experiment by Errol Morris is certainly interesting, and makes a great point of proving how typography does make a subconscious yet tangible difference to readers. However, it is limited to one kind of text: an article in a specific newspaper.

In October 2016, with the help of my colleague Rick Sobiesiak, I set up an experiment to get data about how different typefaces perform for different types of products.

The experiment

For the experiment I picked 4 different typefaces: a transitional serif (Baskerville), a humanist sans (Fira Sans), a grotesque sans (Helvetica), and a slab serif (Roboto Slab).

The 4 typefaces I picked for the experiment.

These were applied to 4 different types of websites: a bank, a news site, the site of a fitness app, and a clothes shop.

The 4 sites used for the survey. The owners of the original sites are in no way affiliated with the experiment.

The study was a relatively simple survey of 73 participants from 17 countries. The participants were shown 4 versions of each site, each version using one of the 4 different fonts. They were asked which of the 4 versions appeared to be the most trustworthy, easy to use, and appealing; there was also a “not sure” option. The order in which the websites appeared was randomized for each participant.

The results

Consistent with previous studies in this field, the results say that the typefaces used make a measurable difference. If we add up the votes for “trustworthy”, we see that again, Baskerville has the best rating. The other 3 fonts perform similarly. The result for “easy to use” is quite different, with the sans-serif fonts performing better, and Baskerville getting the smallest number of preferences. For “appealing”, again the sans-serif typefaces perform better, although with a smaller difference than what had happened for “easy to use”, so this result is not statistically significant (the difference is too small to know whether this result is due to a real difference or to chance).

The results from the 4 sites. Can we trust the combined results though?

These numbers are fascinating, but what is even more interesting is that the performance of the typefaces varies significantly between the different types of websites. Let’s have a look at the results for each of the 4 sites.

1. Banking site

For the banking site, Baskerville appears to be the most trustworthy face. However, Baskerville is the worst performing font for “easy to use”. Fira gets the most votes for both “easy to use” and “appealing”.

The results for the banking site.

2. News site

For the news site, Baskerville is again the most trustworthy, but this time it’s also the most appealing. Helvetica gets the crown for being rated the easiest to use in this case.

The results for the news site.

Notice how Fira is considered the least trustworthy face for the news site? Get ready for a surprise, because…

3. Fitness app site

For the site of the fitness app, Fira is the most trustworthy, but also the easiest to use, with Helvetica coming close, and the most appealing. Baskerville is rated as the least trustworthy typeface in this case. Did you expect that?

The results for the fitness app site.

4. Clothes shop site

For the clothes shop, Helvetica is considered by far the easiest to use. It’s also the most appealing and trustworthy, although this with a smaller margin that make this particular result not statistically significant. Roboto Slab performs bad in every category here, and once again Baskerville is considered the least easy to use of the group.

The results for the clothes shop site.

Lessons learned

This experiment certainly is not the end of all studies on typography and UX. It was only structured around direct questions on a direct comparison of design alternatives. It did not involve users actively engaging with the products. In addition to this, many factors can come into play when it comes to choosing a typeface, including aspects of visual design and branding.

What the results of this experiment do tell us though, is that not only can typography make a real difference to the way users experience the products we design, but also that it influences each product differently. There are no fixed rules such as “use Baskerville for a banking site”. If anything, these results invite us to include font alternatives in the rounds of testing we conduct with users.

Typefaces can improve the experience of people using our sites? Let’s include font alternatives in user testing sessions and find out how.

A typeface is a fully accomplished work of design. But unlike most forms of art and design, it also becomes a tool: a work of design that generates other design, transports new meanings, and deeply influences the way people engage with our products. Be mindful of typography, and use it well.