DEARBORN – Ford will bold and thicken characters on many interior controls across its lineup beginning with the Ford Edge and Ford Explorer next year, making it easier for people of all ages, particularly aging Baby Boomers, to read display fonts.
Ford’s legibility study used Ford engineers for the younger subjects and local retirees for the older group. The study found that even small changes in the fonts used in interior graphics can make them easier and quicker for drivers of all ages to read and recognize.
The letters and numbers that form words and convey other information on the center stack display on the next-generation vehicles will be slightly thicker, with an approximately 40 percent wider stroke width.
The key is to make the words and numbers a bit bolder, but not overwhelming, said Research Engineer Shannon O’Day. Even with high-tech gadgets and components, simpler often works better – and the key is to pay attention to the width and stroke of the text, allowing them to play off each other.
“If you choose wisely, the legibility of even relatively small text can be a comfortable reading experience,” she said. “That is especially helpful for drivers on the move.”
O’Day authored “Legibility: Back to Basics,” a proprietary Ford study that indicates which fonts provide better legibility for drivers of all ages – looking particularly at the needs and limitations of older drivers. Interestingly, younger drivers experienced issues with many of the same fonts, albeit at a much lower rate.
Today, aging consumers are of great interest to companies including Ford. For the first time, people age 65 and over will outnumber children under the age of 5. It’s a transformation that’s changing the world, along with all kinds of products in it.
“We know from this study that we can improve the driving experience for many people by bolding the fonts on our controls,” said O’Day, who has an undergraduate degree in mathematics and master’s degrees in systems engineering and computer science engineering. “This is important because we want to continue appealing to all consumers while making driving easier and potentially safer for a wide range of people.”
The study of fonts is nothing new. Typography has been analyzed as far back as World War II, as the military studied fonts in the cockpits of aircrafts and the bridges of ships. Studies continued in the 1950s and 1960s, as manufacturers strived to make all the household convenience items such as washing machines, ovens and televisions easier to use for consumers.
O’Day’s study focused on two parts: The characteristics of fonts – their sizes and shapes – and the contrast levels under which older drivers were able to read them.
She divided a controlled study group into three age groups and tested them wearing thick “occlusion goggles.” Those goggles, which resemble oversized sunglasses with shutters, are opened or closed by remote computer control to restrict or allow vision.
“When the goggles are open, that allows the subject to look through them and read the task at hand,” said O’Day. “We had our test subjects read a string of characters in different fonts. We would open and close the goggles, replicating a person driving, looking at a center stack display and then glancing back at the road. We’d time the subjects, looking at how many cycles it took for them to read through the characters, and how many they got right and wrong.”
The age groups were: under age 45; age 45 to 59; and 60 and over. The oldest test subject was 91.
There were 15 test conditions in all for the three age groups, and in the end it was easy to see that the older group had the most challenges.
These results match medical trends: Doctors say our eyes exhibit a natural age-related decline in performance. It begins after the age of 40, and tends to increase as we reach our 60s and beyond. The lens of the eye begins to harden, and our focusing ability lessens. Our visual field narrows, and our ability to see in low light decreases.
The test also demonstrated that when the older group could easily read a particular font, the two younger groups could read it as well.
“One of the things this study told me is that with due care, there are many ways of making a font easy to read for older people,” said O’Day. “And if it’s easy for older people to read, it’s going to be easy for everyone to read.”
The fonts that enabled the best performance – the lowest reading errors, the fastest reading time – had a subtle combination of characteristics: larger height, wider width and thinner stroke.
“Everything has to work together,” said O’Day. “There really is a balancing act.”