In most of the website usability studies that I’ve read, poor legibility is by far the most frequent complaint encountered. It’s generally a sin of comission on the part of web designers, because web-safe typography by default is designed to be both legible and flexible.
A website gets into trouble when its design diverges from online typographic standards. Often, the issue begins with a site owner — or the site owner’s print marketing designer — who wants the fonts and styles on a website to mirror those the business uses elsewhere. While it may sound like a good theory from a branding perspective, it’s often a train wreck for usability.
Web pages are not fixed in size like a printed page. They are displayed on screens that range in size from 3.5 inch smartphones up to 40 inch studio monitors. A website needs to accommodate all of them. Attempting to use non-standard fonts, fix font sizes or (gasp!) replace text with images of text can lead to usability disaster.
Once a print page is printed, the user experience is rigidly defined. The user experience for a web page, on the other hand, changes every time the page is called into a new browser window. Web page display obviously depends heavily on the size of the viewing monitor, but size isn’t the only consideration. What is the monitor’s resolution? Is the monitor adjusted to render colors properly? Does the size of the viewing area correspond to the monitor’s primary dimensional ratio? Most importantly, what are the user’s preferences for how the image is displayed on the monitor?
One of the key expectations of Internet use is user control. People want to control which websites they visit through good search results and relevant links. They want to control the content they encounter on a website through efficient site search and descriptive navigation. And they want to control how they view that content by adjusting their browser display settings and the size of the type they read.
Design or content elements that force users into actions they don’t control can lead them to quickly flee your website. Web browsers include a “zoom” function so users can control how they view your website. Make sure your site design accommodates them, and maybe they’ll stick around long enough to send some business your way.