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Should text be bigger on mobile despite the fact that we're dealing with smaller screen real-estate?

Pros:

  • Easier to read while in motion
  • Easier to read under difficult lighting

Cons:

  • Requires more scrolling
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    There's no one answer to this. Entirely dependent on many other variables. All that said, I'd never consider 'scrolling' a con in most situations. Plenty of studies have shown that users are quite capable at scrolling.
    – DA01
    Commented Nov 11, 2013 at 0:58
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    Too subjective, so impossible to answer. A better question would be how to calculate text size to achieve equivalent readability to text on a conventional monitor. Commented Nov 11, 2013 at 1:16

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Jakob Nielson and a large group of other studies suggest scrolling is not a con. Users are acclimated.

Put it into context. If you're sitting at a desk, the monitor is roughly 28 inches away vs. a mobile device that is 12 inches. Should it be larger if it's closer?

Four years ago, Smashing Mag found the most popular body font size on the web was 13px.

Now, most browsers default to 16px (1em/rem = 16px).

Other things to consider for readability.

  1. Font: serifs v sans serif. Sans-serif fonts are generally easier to read if smaller and on display.
  2. X-Height: higher is generally more readable (Georgia and Verdana).
  3. Line-height: generally set to 1.5 (or 1.5 times font size)
  4. Characters per line: In The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst suggests somewhere between 45 and 75 characters. However, on mobile, 35-50 is a good target.

These are basic guidelines that if you didn't loosely follow, would affect readability because user's rhythm, focus, and comprehension would be negatively affected.

Added source for 12-inch distance claim on mobile device

This article pretty much addresses the heart of your question and backs up many of my claims. Conclusion, smaller text on smaller screen because it's held closer.

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    Regarding popularity: just because something is popular doesn't mean it is good design. Related reading: ia.net/blog/100e2r
    – cimmanon
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 19:44
  • Just to put your comment into context: back in the day(4 years ago) 13px was the most popular text size, but iA challenged this notion by advocating for 100% font-size (16px) before it became the norm. Good add.
    – glilley
    Commented Nov 19, 2013 at 0:03

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