Matfont
Research & Development
Info
Mentor: Francisco Gálvez
Year: 2014
Location: Santiago, Chile

Skills & Tools
User Research
Ethnographic Research
User Interview
Typography Design
Usability Testing
Design Validation
About
Matfont is an R&D project that analyzes the typing interaction for users of the scientific area, specifically mathematics. After an exhaustive 6month user investigation, the main conclusion was that the current mechanisms that users used to write mathematical texts were not originally designed to be operated by humans, but by machines (M2M mechanism). That theory led us to design a new open source digital font, with special features that simplifies the action of composing mathematical + alphabetic texts on digital platforms.
Process
As a R&D project first was defined the field of study. Typography and new ways of writing was an interesting topic to review, so we started defining between music, maths or other arts/sciences. In the mathematical field a key user was found: the students who need to type mathematics, but do not know how to code (to use LaTeX, for example), and they are not willing to make the effort to learn, because the won't need it in the future.
Once the user and interaction was structured, the following steps were defined as:

Interaction, user & context definition.

User research & key interactions finding: problems and opportunities.

Interaction design.

Product design: typography drawing and software prototype.

Testing and validation.

Redesign.
The User
The user is characterized by belonging to one of the first generations that have grown alongside the boom of digital technologies, which is why they handle these platforms with full naturalness. The segment is made up of persons who use mathematical notation at a mediumadvanced level (university undergraduate). For them, learning complex programming languages is unnecessary or extremely difficult, if it's only for this purpose. For this reason, they are part of the majority of students who prefer not to use LaTeX to write mathematical documents, because the syntax (TeX) is too complex and they do not have the time or desire to learn it. However, they require a quick tool that has the functions for this level, either to meet academic or personal requirements.
After running 10 User Interviews and validating the data with a Survey applied to more than100 people that fitted the user profile, we reach the following conclusions:
Needs:

When composing texts and writing mathematics digitally, speed and fluency are required, so that the interaction is as close as possible to the manual method.

It is essential that any tool created to write mathematics allows access to the set of characters and symbols needed for it.

For both the writer and the reader, it's key that the two types of notation that are used when writing a document (alphabetical and mathematical) are easily identifiable. Johannes Küster (2004), creator of the Minion Math font, emphasizes this by discarding the design of mathematical fonts of the sansserif type, as these tend to be confused with algebraic symbols.
Expectations:

The orderly presentation of the content is an item that the user expects to be able to achieve through any digital tool. This is one of the central reasons why he prefers digital notation.

It is ideal that to write mathematics they use platforms, tools and languages already known, without learning new codes, so they can interact more fluidly and naturally.

It is relevant to have the ability to systematize the formats of written material, in order to achieve presentation standards, either preconceived or selfestablished.
Project Formulation

What: digital writing tool, which has a digital codification based on the syntax of linear mathematical writing (Unicode).

Why: the alternatives currently used for digital mathematical notation (LaTeX and Word) do not respond to fluid writing, which makes the processes excessively complex or slow for the user.

Whatfor: contribute to access to easier, faster and more effective digital mathematical writing for people who are directly related to this language, at a mediumhigh level (undergraduate).

Specific Goals:

Facilitate the process of composing the mathematical text, through the use of tools, platforms and languages known by the user.

Reduce the time the user needs to produce documents with mathematical notation.

Make available a digital font that contains the necessary characters for any mathematical writing, so that users can create programming versions that fit their specific needs, and thus expand the Matfont catalog of alternatives.
Typography Design
First, an analysis was made of the typographical references, and of the requirements that a font should have that will be used in academic contexts like this. According to that, the typographic design was defined as: serif, curved unions, with great height of x, with low contrast, with extended characters, and light stroke.
The typographic set of Matfont needed to have both complete alphabetic and mathematical set, so it was composed by 747 glyphs:

Regular lowercase: 26

Italic lowercase: 26

Regular capital letters: 26

Italic uppercase: 26

Punctuation and accented characters: 246

Numbers: 10

Numerators and denominators: 20

Mathematical operators: 271

Greek symbols: 33

Doublestruck symbols: 7

Special and other characters: 56
Functionality Prototiping: OpenType features
To simulate Matfont's coded operation, a list of mathematical expressions to be coded with less advanced Open Type options was defined. This consists in the use of ligatures to generate the different mathematical sets, which will later be tested. For this, a series of exercises have been written that contain components that are not available on the keyboard; mathematical combinations of a complex built format, and operators that apply to expressions of more levels (summative, parentheses etc.)
Usability Testing
To test Matfont, the most relevant task within its use has been defined. This consists of writing certain mathematical expressions with the digital source, which contain all types of format to be programmed (multilevel fractions, square root, Greek characters, among others). Each test session was done individually, in order to optimize its observation and registration. Each participant was provided with a computer with the installed font, Microsoft Word and a text editor that supports the font's features. The document containing the mathematical expressions to be written was delivered and then the task procedure was explained:

Open Microsoft Word and write the same expressions using the equation editor of this software.

Choose Matfont from the source catalog, and write the expressions with linear code, in the indicated text editor.
The group of participants was formed by 9 people corresponding to the user group. Tests were conducted with students of the engineering career of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.
Outcomes
The Matfont case was compiled as a Thesis and presented at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. It won the "Best Degree Project" Award and was presented in the Graduate Program in Typography, at the same University.