The What and The Why

Since I first started researching what makes an effective specimen, my hypothesis has been that specimens are tools and users have tasks, especially for digital specimens. After close to 60 hours of talking to people over the last six weeks, I've encountered the same challenge I had six years when I first started this research: people who choose and use fonts have a hard time explaining how they go about doing it.

The What

The What is easy. It's also where big business tends to focus – as I discovered years ago. People buy fonts because they have to. Because they are tied to existing licensing. Or, they buy fonts for a project they are working on, or for their client, team, or boss. They buy fonts to expand into other markets. They buy them because they prefer one particular foundry over another.

These are all practical drivers and motivators for buying fonts. Most of them don't involve any design evaluation.

The Why

I'm not that interested in the what, but the why. Actually, really, it's the 'how' I'm more interested. Understanding how people choose fonts means we can design better tools for them. How do we do that? Well, we ask and we watch. I've done a lot of talking to people, probing, trying to tease out the thought processes. But most people find it challenging to explain outside of actually doing it. It's much better for me to be able to watch someone pick a typeface and ask them questions as they go.

Alongside all of this in-person interviewing, watching, listening, today I'm embarking on another research process I've had a lot of success with over the past couple of years: a Top Task survey.

What are Top Tasks?

Gerry McGovern wrote a book about this methodology. Put very simply, here's what you do:

  1. Get as many tasks as you can. In my case, what people use specimens for when choosing type.
  2. Once I have about 50-100 of them, I ask about 400 or so people to rank them from most important (top tasks) to least important (tiny tasks).
  3. Once you have this list, it gives us a start to create a customer-driven architecture for the specimens.

This is very useful for determining priority for customers, or users, but what it doesn't do – for me, for this project – is give us data that can be balanced against any commercial need because I'm not doing this as part of an organisation that sells fonts. That said, I do hope that this research will help balance the scales a little bit.

I've started gathering tasks in this Google Sheet. It's available for anyone to edit, so if you have a moment, please do add your tasks.