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Twitter’s visit to the valley of death

Twitter’s visit to the valley of death

At the time of writing, Twitter has changed its font and some parts of the internet appear to be losing their tiny minds although other parts seem pretty disinterested in the whole thing. Whatever your view on it, the fact remains that Twitter changed its font from Helvetica Neue (after forays into SF Pro and Roboto) to Chirp (which appears to be a derivation of GT America, which is in turn a derivation of Franklin Gothic) and there was something of a kerfuffle on social media in response

How are we to respond to Twitter’s decision and the twitstorm that has followed it?

Highbrow – take the view that “fonts are the clothes we dress our words in” and help to express the nature of the words and that if Twitter’s Derrit DeRouen wants the font to have “personality and distinctiveness” then that is his right.

Utilitarian – insist that the only responsibility of a design decision is to facilitate the increased and more confident use of the product it relates to.

Bandwagoning – try to make oneself look smarter by judging the whole escapade from the outside and making a series of platitudes which are self–evident in hindsight and easy from a safe distance.

It’s difficult to know quite where to stand on the conundrum and this author has been bouncing between all three positions on an almost daily basis since the Twitterati started to lose the run of itself somewhat.

Perhaps the single biggest challenge that Twitter faces in determining whether or not to keep the font changes is the valley of death.  The valley of death is the dip in user satisfaction that virtually always occurs after a change in a product, the addition of a new feature, or the removal of an old feature.  It reflects the truism that as a general rule, humans don’t like change, and often prefer the old, familiar and inferior to the new, novel and superior, at least in the short term.  So, when first introduced, most new features will reduce user satisfaction before ultimately going on to increase it, assuming they are good enough. Snapchat famously found themselves in the valley of death in 2017 when they fundamentally changed the interface architecture of their product.

This leaves product owners in the precarious situation when they find it difficult to know if user satisfaction reflects the valley (the user will recover) or the finale (it’s the last act for the feature and it needs to be reversed back out).

Fonts do matter.  They matter a lot.  Write a proposal in Comic Sans, or promote a lemonade stand with Times New Roman and you’ll quickly find out that a bad font can overshadow the words it communicates.  Like all design, typographical decisions impact human behaviour.

One of the best–known applications of this truth is the development of the Transport font, developed between 1958 and 1963 by Jock Kinneir and his assistant Margaret Calvert.  The British Ministry of Transport had sought to improve legibility and motorway safety and a number of different fonts were tried out on motorway and dual–carriageways in England before Transport Medium and Transport Heavy were developed.  The introduction of the new fonts had a significant impact in readability from distance, and by corollary, road safety.

It seems from Twitter’s communications since the storm grew that they are listening and adopting as they go, but that they are committed to the font in the long term.  To their credit, they responded to a number of well–documented accessibility issues on the new font “We’re making contrast changes on all buttons to make them easier on the eyes because you told us the new look is uncomfortable for people with sensory sensitivities. We’re listening and iterating.”  They also committed to making changes into the future based on user feedback.

It would be wrong to conclude with a string of easy–answer conclusions from the comfort of my study.  Firstly, because I don’t have any, but secondly because the incident reminds us that product design is difficult, humans complex and unique, and evidence from research often ambiguous and sometimes contradictory.

I don’t think a right answer exists, but that shouldn’t stop the designers pursuing it, because a better one, or a less–bad one does and it’s that “design as a process” mindset which will help Twitter navigate their way beyond the current noise.  Twitter’s approach of active listening, and making agile changes where there is modest technical effort and high user–impact appears to be meeting the needs of the hour.

In time I am sure an academic will take on the challenge of providing us with an empirical decision–making framework for challenges such as this one, but in the interim, this author hasn’t got much further than concluding that somewhere between the bandwagon, the utilitarian approach and the highbrow response lies the right answer.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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