That Touchscreen Typeface Is Ugly. And Maybe Fatal

Touchscreens are becoming the new car dashboard. They are also new to most drivers, often busy to look at and fussy to operate, giving the commuting world new distractions.

Now, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say something as simple as a better typeface on screens can significantly decrease the potential distraction of car touchscreens.

Human-Machine Interfaces

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab and a company called Monotype Imaging wanted to know if car touchscreens could be made safer for already-distracted drivers.

It's not a trivial pursuit. Months or even years of satisfaction and safety research go into every smartphone, tablet, dashboard and appliance interface. 

Between the countless GPSes stuck to windshields and the increasing number of touchscreens in new models, this is an important field of study.

The Premise

As typographers and etymologists will tell you, how words are presented greatly impacts how we interpret them. And how fast we interpret them. That's crucial in a car, where distractions longer than 1.5 seconds are considered dangerous, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration guidelines. Almost any change in how information is communicated impacts how long and how often drivers interact with the device delivering the information.

Most vehicle-installed screens employ the “square grotesque” typeface, defined by tighter spaces than other typefaces and closed shapes (see the image below). MIT and Monotype researchers wondered if a different kind of typeface, known as humanist, which has a more open standard would decrease distracted driving.

The answer is yes.

The researchers put study participants in a simulated 2001 Volkswagen New Beetle at the AgeLab and had them follow prompts from a navigation console in two experiments.

The faux car tracked the eyes of participants as they followed the prompts, measuring glances for systems using square grotesque and humanist type sets.

The more-open humanist font resulted in a 13% improvement in overall response time, 10.6% in glance time and 10.1% in glance frequency, according to the study.

What It Means

A 13% improvement in response time, even in a laboratory setting, is important. Distracted driving was reduced by nearly one-seventh just by changing how letters were displayed on a screen.

How many saved lives, avoided injuries and reduced property-damage claims this research could claim is unknowable now, but just like another simple idea -- a woven strap across the driver's torso -- the opportunities are significant.