App developers: Text size matters

App developers: Text size matters

Summary: There are few things as frustrating as installing an app only to find the text either too small or too large to be usable. What were the developers thinking?


You pick up your phone or tablet and get online, and you hear about a cool app that is just what you have been looking for. You install it on your device, even paying for it if there's a charge, and anxiously fire it up to check it out.

Tale of two text sizes
Two nearest text size settings (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

The screen is filled with text content that is so small to be unusable. You dive into the settings to find the option to make the text larger, only to find out there is not one. The app developer in his/her infinite wisdom has decided that one size fits all is good enough for the text size, and you are stuck with an app that you can't use.

Sadly, this is not that unusual, and it's too easy to find such apps on every mobile platform. The most important information these apps display do so in a form that makes them practically illegible to users.

I have the utmost respect for app developers as I understand how hard the job is to do right. But I must take those who make this horrendous mistake to the woodshed. There is no excuse for doing this in a released app other than pure laziness. 

If there's something about the platform the malcreant app runs on that forces the text to be far too small or too large, some extra coding time must be spent to let the user change it. If for some reason the platform makes that impossible, then for heaven's sake don't release your app.

This happens far too often, especially on today's high-resolution phones and tablets. They are capable of rendering lots of information on the little screens at once, and that can be a challenge. Once you release an app for these devices, the challenge to make it workable is on your back. Not the user's.

Some apps you run into have different levels of screens that display text in different ways. Using apps done wrong will have user-selectable text size on some screens but not others. Yes, the developer obviously realized that some screens were useless without a way to change the text size, but chose to leave the garbage text on other screens by leaving the size fixed. Shame on you for doing that.

Before developers start jumping in and calling my eyesight into question, it's actually pretty good with my glasses. I always wear them so it's not a hit or miss thing.

Apps for reading ebooks can exhibit a different problem that is equally frustrating for the customer. While they all have text that is adjustable larger or smaller in incremental steps, sometimes the jump between steps is too big to be useful. That is demonstrated in the image above which shows the text sizes from two adjacent sizes. Too small on the left, and far too big at the next largest setting in the app. Note that this image is much smaller than the actual screen.

I realize app development is hard, but you chose to do that. I also understand that it can be a challenge to make your app display properly on every platform and every device. That's the business, though, so once you make the business decision to release your app, there is no excuse to make a blatant blunder like having text information that is useless. Even if it's not technically your fault, you get the blame for letting your app get onto customers' screens.

Topics: Mobility, Smartphones, Tablets

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  • Flipbook for Windows

    Windows 8.1 version of Flipbook has this issue and it is greatly annoying. On my Surface, Flipbook is not very comfortable for reading. They need to offer a way to change the text size like almost every other Windows store apps on the market.
  • Visual Studio Emulator Size

    A lot of times developers forget to change the emulator size in Visual Studio. You can simulate any screen size, not just the default. I happen to think the default Windows 8 fonts are very good and rarely do I see an app with unreadable text.
    Sean Foley
    • Your eys must be better than most...

      Part of the problem is not having a DPI measure for determining the text size. Most are using pixels... and don't allow you to specify the size of a pixel, and you can't select the number of pixels to use for a font. Others pick a size based on points (which should 1/72 of an inch) unfortunately, the applications don't know how many pixes it is for a point...

      With the same result.
      • Actually

        Windows does expose API's that help you write DPI aware apps:

        Windows 8.1 also improves auto-scaling of some types of non-DPI aware apps.
      • Did you really ever use Visual Studio? I just wonder

        Windows offers API that enables the developers to write good apps to fit the corrected eyes too. And you could emulate this in your WP development in the emulator and test it. That's what Sean is talking about. Also there are very good samples on MSDN and CodePlex sites that help developers use this. Geez, some people can't get out of their bigotry ever.
        Ram U
  • NOT a Gray Area

    James, you forgot an even bigger developers' "sin". It now seems to be in vogue to use extremely low-contrast very light-gray-on-white MICROSCOPIC text to display the information that the user is seeking. Having been a PC user since 1988, I remember the days when developers used somewhat higher contrast "grayed-out" text or buttons to indicate that a feature or function was NOT active within the context of a particular situation. Now however, they apply unreadable characteristics to the information one is currently seeking to use or activate.
    --- That same type of brilliance in action is the reason an entire concert-going, boom-boom rap-listening generation is now half-deaf by the age of 34, and will be completely deaf by the age of 54.
    --- They now insist on becoming blind as well.
    Paul B. Wordman
  • Typographers agree.

    Typographers agree. And not just font size, but the font itself matters, as well as kerning, font weight, etc. They can all affect legibility.
  • This is an issue that needs to be addressed if they're going to allow

    Windowed metro apps in windows 9. I currently use modernmix for that and many of the apps have absolutely huge fonts when compared to desktop programs. That's fine, perhaps even preferred on a tablet, but when running on the desktop that just isn't acceptable.
    Sam Wagner
  • James Kendrick - HEED your own reports! ! ! !

    Your ZD-NET is micro-font. I have to increase all your pages 160%
    Come-on now, . . .
    Bit Ink can't cost THAT much.