Courier of Information

I got a call from the 1990s a few months ago asking for their font back. I declined and explained that just because something is old, does not mean it cannot still be good. Sometimes, things created long ago have a unique value that endears them to be used even today. Not everything has a useful life measured in months; some can last for decades, outliving fad after fad and upstart after upstart because they have something the newer generations did not. They are, in a word, timeless. The next day, Justin Timberlake released another single. Touché, 1990s.

I am speaking, of course, about the Courier New font. Introduced in 1992 with Windows 3.1, it is a refresh of the Courier font, which was released in 1955. Courier itself was designed to be similar in appearance to the output from typewriters, giving this family of fonts a long life and ‘classic’ appearance. You can read more of this fascinating history on Wikipedia.

Why do I mention this on a blog about Internal Audit data analysis, and why do I care about fonts? To help answer that question, let’s look at a screenshot of some sample data in ACL:

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The data is displayed here using ACL’s default selection of ‘Segoe UI’. This is a nice, modern-looking font. It is pleasing to look at and it fits well with other modern applications. This is an admirable goal; one of the reasons I enjoy using ACL is because the user interface looks nice. In a purely rational world, aesthetics would take a back seat to functionality and products would compete entirely on their utility. However, we are not rational beings, and I am forced to admit that the appearance of the software I use is an important factor to my enjoyment of it. I want to use software that looks and feels sexy. ACL, in addition to constantly updating the utility of their analytics platform, has also put great effort to improving the user experience. I applaud them for this and hope they continue updating the aesthetics of their software.

But sometimes goods looks are not enough and too much utility is sacrificed in the name of beauty. In these situations, we have to revert to something that may not look as nice, but functions better. Each of us has a different threshold where this happens; for me, that threshold was crossed when I took some time to think about fixed-width fonts.

You should already be familiar with fixed-width fonts – the ACL script editor renders scripts using a fixed-width font:

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Fixed-width fonts are aptly-named because each character takes up the same amount of space. Courier New, the font used for the script editor, is a fixed-width font. Segoe UI is not a fixed-width font; each character takes up a different amount of space depending on the size of the character. This is fine for general reading or interacting with software, but it may not be ideal for data analysis, particularly analysis of text data.

Take a look at the sample data rendered in Courier New:

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I know, it looks pretty retro. You will get used to that after a day or so. But look at the ‘Home Address’ field. If we were analyzing this field to determine the variability of address entry and how we might need to normalize it, I would argue that the font we use can aid or hinder our analysis. Courier New makes inconsistencies such as the extra space in record 91 or the leading space in record 105 more visible. When comparing patterns of text data, the fixed-width nature of the font makes it easier to see which records have similar patterns at a glance, without requiring normalization techniques. Courier New also does a good job making each character visually distinct: for example, uppercase i’s, the number one, and lowercase L’s are all completely different. As a result, I can spend more time digesting the data without having to spend so much time translating the data and figuring out which characters I am looking at. The font provides benefits that makes our data more ‘visual’ while only having the downside that it looks old.

There is a reason the ACL script editor and most other, widely-used, IDEs continue to use fixed-width fonts to render code – because it aids in code analysis. I think this reason is equally valid when analyzing data. I have had a few moments that validated this opinion since I started using Courier New; and while not very significant individually, together they have convinced me that this font works better than ACL’s default.

If you want to experiment with Courier New, or any other fixed-width font, you can do so in ACL by navigating to Tools -> Options, selecting the ‘Application Font’ tab, and changing the value for ‘Proportional Font’.

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