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Hard to read, hard to do

Staff writer |
Marketers and designers would do well to choose easy-to-read fonts.

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Maybe reading the instructions really is overrated. New research by University of Michigan professor Norbert Schwarz and colleague Hyunjin Song shows that instructions printed in a hard-to-read font may scare people from taking on the task.

"People are more likely to engage in a given behavior the less effort it requires," said Schwarz, a marketing professor at the Ross School of Business and a professor of psychology. "They misread the ease of processing instructions as indicative of the ease with which the described behavior can be executed." Schwarz and Song, a doctoral student in psychology, conducted several studies to test their prediction. Participants were given instructions in various fonts of the same size and asked to rate the difficulty for the corresponding activity. Across the board, the typeface deemed more difficult to read elicited a higher degree of difficulty rating.

One of the studies involved instructions for an exercise routine printed in Arial font for one group of participants and Brush Script MT 12, a slanted cursive-like font, for the other group. "As expected, participants inferred that the exercise routine would flow more naturally and take less time when the font was easy to read," Song said. "As a result, they reported higher willingness to make the exercise part of their daily routine."

Schwarz and Song also controlled for inconsistent memory and found that participants recalled details of the instructions equally well regardless of the font used.

According to the researchers, a person's tendency to draw on metacognitive experiences—that is, thinking about thinking—in making judgments should be useful for marketers and designers. With this research in mind, instructions can be designed to increase the appeal of the described behavior and make people more likely to engage in it, they say.

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