What’s in a Word?

Gareth Ford Williams
The Readability Group
8 min readApr 22, 2021


The answer to the question in the title of this article is fundamentally simple, yet as with so many simple things, it is fundamentally complex. The most obvious answer to the question is of course: letters. But letters come in different sizes and shapes, like humans.

The word Accessibility written twice, one in and once out of focus

Before we can even consider the letters — the typography — we have to consider our readers and evaluate what we can do with considerate typography to help them access our words. Then there are the words themselves which can have awkward letter combinations that may possibly erect barriers in how they are read.

Let’s first focus on the readers as understanding the variety of conditions has an impact on how we can think about design.

Human visual anatomy

For the large majority of people reading is a visual process and involves the visual system. The visual system can broadly be divided into the ophthalmic and neurological parts. For some people with severe visual impairments reading may be a tactile process, such as Braille or touch-signing. In this instance the ophthalmic part is not activated but the neurological part is. This distinction into the different parts of the reading systems is important as it allows us to define different conditions and impairments.

The left and right pathways
A schematic of the visual pathway system

The ophthalmic part affects everything that is in the eyes, including the connection to the optic nerve. Any impairment or defect to the eye will have an effect on the quality of visual information that is transmitted to the brain and be processed accordingly. There are many ophthalmic conditions that are well known, some of which can easily be overcome with assistive technologies like glasses. The neurological part of the visual system starts with the optic nerve which carries the information that the eye converts to electrical charges to the visual cortex. From there, this information is distributed into many other areas of the brain to allow the person to understand the visual stimuli.

Without diminishing the ophthalmic part of the visual system, it is in the brain where so much can go wrong, and so much still is not fully understood yet. The optic nerve may have a defect that distorts the signals, cognitive abilities may impair how the information is interpreted, or traumas like stroke may have rendered small but important parts of the brain defunct. A good understanding of this diversity within our audience paired with good typographic practice will help the reader overcome many obstacles and barriers with reading.

The Readability Group survey

On the 9th of February 2021 The Readability Group launched a study into digital font accessibility. This study captures data that will enable researchers to explore the preferences of user groups with specific characteristics. As well as helping us understand more about user preference it captured data at scale on font features that need consideration that can impact on user experiences of websites, mobile applications, video games and other types of graphic user interface.

This quantitative study asks users to “take no more than a couple of seconds to choose which version of the word you find the easiest to read”, and if possible to remove reading glasses to make the decision more challenging. Participants were then presented with pairs of words and asked to select the one they “prefer”.

We use this terminology because we are aware that, as in all inclusive design, fonts have to address the functional, technical and emotional aspects of accessibility in order to be fully effective.

Ours is not a targeted study into a particular user group. Instead we have captured user data that enables us to identify characteristics by using individual or combinations of statements drawn from the questionnaire and other pertinent user data. We can group characteristics into typical conditions in degrees of severity and place them into particular contexts. To ensure we captured a broad demographic range of users in what is essentially a study powered by volunteers, we reached out to a mixture of our personal and professional networks as well as online communities of people with differing abilities and experiences. We should all be familiar with the slogan, “nothing about us without us”, so by reaching out to various communities and networks we have aimed to attain a diverse group of user’s preferences when it comes to fonts.

Phonological Dyslexia Characteristics test audience characteristics. Mild 13.7%, Moderate 8.7%, Strong 12.5% and no characteristics 65%
One of the visualisations on user characteristics we can extract from our survey data

From many years of past experience in recruitment we know that statements from the participants on having conditions such as “dyslexia” or “ADHD” as a metric can be problematic especially in a study like this. As Jamie Knight often says, “if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person”, and when you think about this statement it pretty much rings true for all conditions. I (Gareth) am dyslexic and I have ADHD but my experience of those conditions will be different to others because of my related experience, attained education, coping strategies, confidence etc. So what we focused on was not direct questioning about conditions but about surfacing multiple characteristics related to conditions. When combined and weighted they can create complex user group personas mirroring challenges often faced by people with specific conditions, traits or combinations thereof.

To say this study has been set up to provide all the answers on font accessibility would be an unrealistic statement. It does however give us quantitative data on audience preferences that will replace third hand anecdotes, memes and popular myth that often gets presented as fact about font accessibility.

As a group we are each interested in different aspects of reading. We pooled our knowledge and experience, and spent two years designing and building a platform to gather real data about this subject. Today, we have a dataset from over 2500 survey respondents, containing nearly 400,000 data points, that can be queried in terms of reader characteristic, letter combination, device display and of course by font features.

Why should designers think about font choices?

The typeface is the foundation to emotional, functional and technical accessibility. Relegating the typeface choice to an afterthought will inevitably lead to an accessibility and product or service failure.

The title of this article is ‘What’s in a word?’ and reflects not just how we approached our study but also that when designing successful reading experiences we should be confident in the choices we have made. It also reminds us that user interfaces are reading experiences in themselves. Websites, mobile apps, games, dashboards or other GUIs are made up of clusters or lists of single or a small groups of words at the most which differs greatly from content reading experiences in articles or books. This is why we had to have a new methodology that looked at the work itself rather than longer-form reading experiences. Considering that sighted users have little alternative to reading to enable them to access any product or service, makes it imperative that the choice of font caters for the diversity of sighted audiences. The functionality of the font therefore needs to work for users with or without vision or cognitive conditions as well as users who are less skilled at reading.

Achieving emotional accessibility is the real challenge in this case, how to convey personality and identity without sacrificing functionality. It is perfectly possible to do so but requires the designer to go beyond the usual font suspects and investigate features in a font and how they can contribute to functional accessibility. It requires the designer to look into the words themselves and how some letter combinations could potentially erect an accessibility barrier. It requires the designer to investigate whether the font meets the technical accessibility requirements ensuring it behaves consistently across different devices.

We understand that this is both a known problem space but also one where decision making tools are lacking. We don’t believe that the answer lives in hegemony of font design but we believe that the methodology we have developed will empower designers to enable organisations to make decisions that are right for the brand, the platforms and the users.

Why characteristics rather than conditions?
As a person with both Dyslexia and ADHD I have learned coping strategies and techniques which result in having to focus on every word at least twice when reading. This is not something I would claim to be common for all people with my combination of conditions, but the point is that not everyone with known conditions develop the same level of reading skills or have the same experience of reading.

There are more advanced readers with dyslexia and less advanced, which is a mixture of the severity of the condition or combination of additional characteristics, such as reading fatigue, self-confidence, determination and practice. But for all people with reading challenges the clarity of single word shapes is a fundamental aspect to understanding the meaning of what is written.
For a scale on adult reading ability according to the National Literacy Trust’s data from research carried out between 2009 and 2012, 8,500,000 adults in the UK alone have very poor literacy skills, which will have increased due to population growth.

By tracking user characteristics rather than declared conditions we get a much better understanding of the abilities of a group and therefore give more meaningful context to any data collected. Characteristics give intersectional insights and also help us identify users with barriers that might have been missed if we depended on declarations only.

What’s Next?

More quantitative studies need to be done and we at The Readability Group hope for the continued support of the community that made our first survey such a success. We are also turning the research platform into a re-usable tool so we can work with organisations on more focused research, that in combination with neuroscientific and neuropsychological investigations will help a greater understanding of how humans read and how they react to fonts.

The aim of our work is not to find the most accessible font, as accessibility is not a competition. Our aim is to provide the data to allow designers and content publishers to make informed decisions, reduce the barriers to typographic accessibility and increase their engagement with the widest possible demographic. This can only be a good thing as it will benefit all visual readers.

With thanks to Bruno Maag for both editing and the sciencey bits, and David Bailey for the Illustrations.

For the initial presentation of the first study, please visit the Axe-Con site

#accessibility #fonts #a11y #uxdesign #typography #inclusion #ADHD #Dyslexia #Neurodiversity



Gareth Ford Williams
The Readability Group

Director at Ab11y.com and The Readability Group. I am an Ex-Head of UX Design and Accessibility at the BBC and I have ADHD and I’m Dyslexic.