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SaidAchmiz comments on LW 2.0 Strategic Overview - Less Wrong

47 Post author: Habryka 15 September 2017 03:00AM

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Comment author: SaidAchmiz 19 September 2017 05:32:13PM *  1 point [-]

And I am arguing that on the more general question (are typefaces with serifs a bad idea on the web?) the simple answer "no; that's an outdated bit of bogus conventional wisdom" is in fact just as wrong as the simple answer "yes; everyone knows that".

Disagree. (Keep reading for details.)

But if you are choosing a typeface for substantial chunks of text that might be read on a not-so-great screen, you will likely get better results with a sans-serif typeface.

This is still incorrect, because serif readability is superior to that of sans-serif, and see below for the matter of "not-so-great screens".

Screen DPS

Given the pixel resolution per character you need to make serifs work, they are inferior on the screen… if you have a 72ppi (or less) display.

Now, such displays exist; here's one. They are quite rare, though, and designed for entertainment, not work. The idea that any appreciable percentage of LW users have such hardware seems implausible.

On a ~96ppi display (such as this nearly decade-old cheap flat-panel I'm using right now, or indeed any display display made in the past 15+ years), the apparent (angular, a.k.a. "CSS reference pixel") font size that you need to bring out the superiority of serif typefaces is no larger than the minimum size called for by other accessibility guidelines.

“The LW 2.0 font is less readable”

On the desktop machine I'm using right now, though, it's ugly and it feels more effortful to read than the corresponding thing on, say, Less Wrong. For me, that is.

1. What OS is this on? If the answer is "Linux" or "Windows", then part of the answer is "text rendering works very different on those operating systems, and you have a) test your site on those systems, b) make sure to make typographic choices that compensate, c) take specific actions to ensure that the user experience is adjusted for each client platform". I of course can't speak to (a), but (b) and (c) are not in evidence here.

2. The body text font size on LW 2.0 is too small (especially for that font), period. Again I refer you to https://www.readthesequences.com/Biases-An-Introduction; the body text is at 21px there. I consider that to be a minimum (adjusted for the particular font); whereas LW 2.0 (with a similar type of font) is at 16px. Yes, it looks tiny and hard to read. (But have you tried zooming in? What happens then?)

3. Other issues, like color (#444, in this case) affecting text rendering. I speak of this in my other comments.

“Consensus matters locally”

Consider the limiting case where every LW user looks at the site and says "ugh, don't like that font, the serifs make it harder for me to read". Even if all those users are shockingly ignorant of typography, this is a case where if no one likes it, then it is ipso facto bad.

If every LW user looks at the site and says that, then we can't still conclude anything about serifs from that, because if all of those users have not the smallest ounce of typography or design expertise, then they don't know what the heck they like or dislike, serif-wise.

Let me be clear: I'm not saying that people can't tell whether they like or dislike a particular thing. I am saying that without domain knowledge, people can't generalize their preferences. Ok, so some text on their screen is hard for them to read. What's making it so? The fact that a font has serifs? Or maybe just that it's a particular kind of serif font? Or the font weight? Or the weight grade? Or the shape of the letterforms (how open the curves are, for instance, or the weight variability, perhaps due to which "optical size" is being used)? Or the color? Or the subpixel rendering settings? Or the kerning? Or the line spacing? Or the line length? Or the text-rendering CSS property setting? If you (the hypothetical-user you) don't know what most or all of those things are, then sure your preferences are real, but your opinion (generalized from those preferences) is worth jack squat.

In other words: "if no one likes it, then it is ipso facto bad"—yes, but what, exactly, is "it"? You're equivocating between two meanings, in that sentence! So, this is true:

“If no one likes <a particular specific thing>, then <that specific particular thing> is bad.”

Yes. Granted. But you seem to want to say something like:

“If no one likes <a particular specific thing>, then <things in a class that include that specific particular thing> are bad.”

But any particular thing belongs to many different classes, which intersect at the point defined by that thing! Obviously not all those classes are ipso facto bad, so which one(s) are we talking about?? We have no idea!

I am arguing that when the thing at issue is the experience of LW people, the experiences of LW people should not be dismissed.

Dismissed? No. Taken at anything even remotely resembling face value? Also no.

Come on, folks. This is just a rehash of the "people don't have direct access to their mental experience" debate. You know all of this already. Why suddenly forget it when it comes up in a new domain?

Comment author: gjm 19 September 2017 10:22:23PM *  0 points [-]

serif readability is superior to that of sans-serif

Do you have actual solid evidence for that? I'm guessing that if you did you'd have given it already in your earlier comments, and you haven't; but who knows? (One of the answers to that Quora question mentions a study that found a small advantage for serifs. It also remarks that the difference was not statistically significant, and calls into question the choice of typefaces used, and says it's not a very solid study. So I hope you have something better than that.)

On a ~96ppi display [...] the apparent [...] font size that you need to bring out the superiority of serif typefaces is no larger than the minimum size called for by other accessibility guidelines.

Again, I would be interested in more information about what evidence you have about the font size required "to bring out the superiority of serif typefaces". For the avoidance of doubt, that isn't a coded way of saying "I bet you're wrong"; I would just like to know what's known about this and how solidly. I do not have the impression that these issues are as settled as you are making them sound; but I may just be unaware of the relevant work.

What OS is this on?

One instance is Firefox on Windows; the other is Firefox on FreeBSD (which I expect is largely indistinguishable in this context from Firefox on Linux). I concur with your guess that the people responsible for LesserWrong have not done thorough testing of their site on a wide variety of platforms, though I would be surprised if no one involved uses either Windows or Linux.

Yes, it looks tiny and hard to read.

LesserWrong has what looks to me like a weird multiplicity of different text sizes. Some of the text is clearly too small (personally I like small text, but I am aware that my taste is not universally shared). However -- and I must stress again that here I am merely describing my own experience of the site -- if I go to, say, this post on the Unix box at my desk right now then (1) the size of the type at my typical viewing distance is about the same as that of a decently typeset paperback book at its typical viewing distance, and (2) I find the text ugly and harder to read than it should be because various features of the typeface (not only the serifs) are poorly represented -- for me, on that monitor, after rendering by my particular machine -- at the available resolution. (The text is very similar in size and appearance to that on readthesequences.com; LW2.0 appears to be using -- for me, etc., etc. -- ETBembo Roman LF at 19.2px actual size, whereas RTS is using GaramondPrmrPro at 21px actual size. ETBembo has a bigger x-height relative to its nominal size and most lowercase letters are almost exactly the same size in each.)

Other issues, like color

Yup, agreed. But I would say the same about readthesequences.com even though its body text is black.

If every LW user looks at the site and says that, then we can't still conclude anything about serifs from that,

I agree. (Though it would, despite their hypothetical ignorance, be evidence. Someone who says "this text is hard to read because of the serifs" may be wrong, but I claim they are more likely to say it in the face of text that's hard to read because of its serifs than of text that's hard to read for some other reason.)

Perhaps I left too much implicit in my earlier comment, so let me try to remedy that. I firmly agree that the mere fact that some LW users believe some proposition about serifs in webpage text is perfectly compatible with the falsehood of that proposition. Even if it's quite a lot of LW users. Even if they have a lot of karma.

But the thing that actually matters here is not the general proposition about serifs, but a more specific question about the type used on LesserWrong. I wasn't equivocating between this and the general claim about serifs, nor was I unaware of the difference; I was deliberately attempting to redirect discussion to the more relevant point.

(Not that the general question isn't interesting; it is.)

[EDITED to add:] Of course much of what I wrote before was about the general proposition. Whether I agree with you about that depends on exactly what version of the general proposition we're discussing -- I take it you would agree with me that many are possible, and some might be true while others are false. In particular, I am somewhat willing to defend the claim that there are otherwise reasonable choices of text size for which typical seriffed typefaces make for a worse reading experience than typical sans-serif typefaces for people using 100ish-ppi displays, and that while this can be mitigated somewhat by very careful choice of serif typefaces and careful working around the quirks of the different text rendering users on different platforms will experience, selecting sans-serif typefaces instead may well be the better option. I am also willing to be convinced to stop defending that claim, if there is really good evidence against it.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 19 September 2017 11:28:26PM 0 points [-]

Do you have actual solid evidence for that?

Not close at hand. You may reasonably consider my claim to be undefended for now. When I have the time, I'll try to put together a bit of a lit survey on this topic.

LesserWrong has what looks to me like a weird multiplicity of different text sizes. Some of the text is clearly too small (personally I like small text, but I am aware that my taste is not universally shared). However -- and I must stress again that here I am merely describing my own experience of the site -- if I go to, say, this post on the Unix box at my desk right now then (1) the size of the type at my typical viewing distance is about the same as that of a decently typeset paperback book at its typical viewing distance, and (2) I find the text ugly and harder to read than it should be because various features of the typeface (not only the serifs) are poorly represented -- for me, on that monitor, after rendering by my particular machine -- at the available resolution. (The text is very similar in size and appearance to that on readthesequences.com; LW2.0 appears to be using -- for me, etc., etc. -- ETBembo Roman LF at 19.2px actual size, whereas RTS is using GaramondPrmrPro at 21px actual size. ETBembo has a bigger x-height relative to its nominal size and most lowercase letters are almost exactly the same size in each.)

Right you are. The 16px size is what I saw on the front page.

Even on my machines, ET Book (source) does not seem to render as well as Garamond Premier Pro (in a browser).

Though it would, despite their hypothetical ignorance, be evidence. Someone who says "this text is hard to read because of the serifs" may be wrong, but I claim they are more likely to say it in the face of text that's hard to read because of its serifs than of text that's hard to read for some other reason.

I think this is literally true but relevantly false; specifically, I think this is false once you condition on the cause of the text's unreadability not being some gross and obvious circumstance (like, it's neon purple on a fuchsia background, or it's set at 2px size, etc.)

I think that someone who is ignorant of typography is no more likely to blame serifs in the case of the serifs being to blame than in the case of the text rendering or line length being to blame.

But the thing that actually matters here is not the general proposition about serifs, but a more specific question about the type used on LesserWrong. I wasn't equivocating between this and the general claim about serifs, nor was I unaware of the difference; I was deliberately attempting to redirect discussion to the more relevant point.

Noted. I was responding to the general claim.

As to the specific question, the matter of serifs is moot, because (as with all specific design decisions), each designer decision should be comprehensively user-tested and environment-tested, and as much user choice should be offered as possible.

Of course much of what I wrote before was about the general proposition. Whether I agree with you about that depends on exactly what version of the general proposition we're discussing -- I take it you would agree with me that many are possible, and some might be true while others are false.

Indeed.

In particular, I am somewhat willing to defend the claim that there are otherwise reasonable choices of text size for which typical seriffed typefaces make for a worse reading experience than typical sans-serif typefaces for people using 100ish-ppi displays … I am also willing to be convinced to stop defending that claim, if there is really good evidence against it.

Nope, the claim is reasonable. Websites where information density is more important than long-form readability, or where text comes in small chunks and a user is expected not to read straight through but to extract those chunks, may be like this. For that use case, a smaller point size of "body" text may be called for, and a well-chosen sans font may be a better fit.

LessWrong is not such a website, though a hypothetical LessWrong community wiki may be (or it may not be; it depends on what sort of content it mostly contains).

(Aside: I somewhat object to speaking of "typical" serif typefaces, because that's hard to resolve nowadays. I suspect that you know that, and I know that, but in a public discussion it pays to be careful with language like this.)

However:

very careful choice of […] typefaces and careful working around the quirks of the different text rendering users on different platforms will experience

… is always advisable, regardless of typographic or other design choices.