How can information best be conveyed to influence behaviour? Choosing the right font type is surprisingly important, explain Dr Debbie Smith, Dr Andrew Manley and Professor Dame Tina Lavender.
What do you take into account when trying to get your message across? The information to be communicated, of course. How to express it – using plain language. The means of distributing the text, as well. But the font type? Well, yes, actually you should. If you want the material to be read and acted upon, the choice of font type may be crucial.
The presentation of written information affects the way we perceive and interpret important messages. Even something as seemingly trivial as font type can significantly influence how written information is perceived by individuals.
Font type is perhaps the last thing on a researcher’s mind when writing a participant information sheet that will be used to recruit participants for his or her research project, yet findings from current research show this may have a key role in participant recruitment. It may have a similarly important role in determining participant and patient engagement in potentially beneficial health interventions.
Participant information sheets are vital for all research conducted in the NHS and are the primary source of research study information offered to prospective participants. The NHS provides a participant information sheet template for researchers – but this does not include a suggested font type. Participant information sheets need to provide prospective participants with clear information about the study in order that all appropriate measures are taken to ensure that the written text is presented in the most effective manner.
A recent study conducted by a team of researchers from The University of Manchester and Leeds Beckett University found that font type can determine initial interpretations and perceptions of health interventions and thus could have an impact on recruitment rates. When the details of an antenatal health intervention were displayed in a font type that was easy to read (for example, Arial), pregnant women with a Body Mass Index of 30 or more perceived the intervention to be less complex and easier to understand than when the same information was presented in a harder-to-read font-type (e.g., Mistral).
Maternal obesity (being pregnant with a Body Mass Index of 30 or more) is increasing in the UK and associated with numerous complications in pregnancy, during birth and post-birth. There is limited knowledge on what interventions can help these women to have better pregnancy, birth and post-birth outcomes. One difficulty reported in several studies is recruiting these women to research studies.
In other words, participant information sheets written in an easy-to-read font type made women less likely to perceive the antenatal intervention as complex or difficult. They were then more likely to feel confident about participating.
This is an important finding in the light of existing evidence that shows attending lifestyle interventions has several physical and psychological benefits for these women. These results suggest that health professionals and researchers can optimise participant/patient engagement simply by adapting the font type in which intervention documents are written.
The ‘Processing Fluency Effect’ is believed to be the reason for these findings. This phenomenon – frequently examined within psychology literature – has the potential to influence a wide range of our decisions and judgments by manipulating the way we process written information. For example, when we read (or process) information with great ease (or fluency), we typically view this information as familiar, trustworthy and easy to follow.
Our research found that font type influenced pregnant women’s perceptions of an antenatal intervention. It also affected trainee midwives’ perceptions of an antenatal intervention. We found that the easier the font was to read, the less complex the intervention was perceived.
Moreover, we concluded that the mere presentation of participant information may affect participant recruitment. These findings have implications for the ethical recruitment of hard-to-reach groups by ensuring an ‘easy-to-read’ font is used that helps their perception of the study to be familiar and less complex. The same is true for interventions aimed at these target groups. The font of written information may also determine adherence to interventions. These results have implications not only for ethical recruitment, but also the optimisation of corresponding interventions.
We therefore suggest that health practitioners can harness the benefits of ‘Processing Fluency Effects’ by presenting written information to eligible patients/participants in an accessible manner. This means, for example, using a sans-serif font such as Arial or Verdana. This is particularly important when the intervention featuring in the study (as outlined in the participant information sheet) includes health behaviours that the participant is not currently actively engaged in. For example, interventions containing physical activity components maybe automatically perceived by a sedentary person as difficult and thus font type may have a key role here.
Policymakers should be aware of ‘Processing Fluency Effects’ and the role that mere shifts in font type can play in the perception of written messages. This makes sense not just because of the effect of this, but also as editing the font type of policy documents is relatively simple and straightforward. The current study was a female-only sample, so future research should examine the possible impact of several demographic details such as gender and age.
However, academics and policymakers must join forces to ensure that the existing and emerging evidence regarding the practical implications of ‘Processing Fluency Effects’ can be exploited for maximum benefit in a wide range of contexts. As a result, more research is needed to explore the use of different font type and the impact on perceptions on different written documents.
Manley, A. Lavender, T. & Smith DM. (2015). Processing fluency effects: does the content and presentation of participant information sheets influence initial perceptions of an antenatal lifestyle programme? Journal of Patient Education and Counselling, 98, 391-394. Doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2014.11.005.