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Committed: Digital Comics & User-Experience

Now that comic books are being bought and sold in a digital format, read on websites and downloaded, why hasn’t there been a radical rethink of the user-interface? After 20 years of refining websites, online comics haven’t changed a bit. We are still looking basically a static image, clumsily scrolling down vertically oriented pages which were designed to be printed but are being read online. I remember doing this on the first websites I saw. Can it be that they were so perfect that they don’t require any revision in light of the changing technology and marketplace?

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been doing a lot more of the user-experience design than the graphic design. To explain, user-experience design is about designing how people move through and use a digital space, (like a website or a game), while graphic design focuses more on the way that experience looks visually. Obviously there is a lot of crossover and it helps to understand both aspects of design if you’re going to work digitally, but they definitely use different parts of my brain. Anyway, getting back to how this relates to comics…

While I was dissecting the myriad ways a person could move through one or two screens of a website, deciding how complex they should be and how to make the entire experience feel more natural and organic through language, button arrangement and layout, I was discussing digital comic books with a colleague. He became quite irate discussing his own experiences trying to download more than one title in a massive crossover event, bemoaning the fact that there isn’t a way to buy a parcelled run of event titles without clicking “buy” on each one and then confirming each purchase, ultimately leading to having to click up to 4 times for each title (which can really add up on a large scale crossover event like Brightest Day or Final Crisis, just to name a couple.)

After we spoke I realized that I’ve never really looked at the user-experience of digital comic book purchasing or (more interestingly) digital comic book reading. Personally, since I don’t have an iPad, I hardly read any comics online. I’ve read a couple online, publishers often send books in a digital format for review and I’ve bought a couple just to test out the formatting and experience. Each time I’ve read a comic online which was originally created to be printed, it is abundantly clear that this is a bastardized format. No one has taken the comic book and recreated it to live on computers, it has not yet adapted, and part of this is because at the moment, the industry teeters on the edge of denying that it is happening.

Let’s get something out the way. There is no question that people are downloading digital comic books. Wasting time trying to stop this process by making it crappy is just fighting a losing battle. I have to assume that this stubborn resistance to evolving the user-interface is a conscious decision, since every other aspect of our online lives has been dissected and refined in a million different ways, particularly the ones which appeal to a geekier (and thus more tech-friendly audience.) But while making the reading process so lame that is basically off-putting to everyone but the most hardened comic book readers will only slow the download process, not halt it.

Resistance is tragically backwards thinking, people are downloading comic books, shrinking an already dwindling market which can think of nothing more than to fight the tide. Like everything in life, change is inevitable, the medium must evolve to work with the changing interface needs, or die.

  • Comics could cost less to download, because of the money saved on printing costs.
    I think I’m missing something because I don’t understand why some publishers charge the same for a digital download of a comic book as they do for a printed version. These digital downloads often aren’t formatted for the digital space and there is no reason that they cost so much.
  • Legal digital comic downloads could be more widely available.
    At the moment digital comic books are available on specialty online stores because of exclusive agreements with publishers. Like digital music downloads, comic books could be sold on the same sites which sell the printed versions, like Amazon. It would provide more incentive for people to purchase them, particularly to a world-wide audience who aren’t familiar with the comic book specialty store.
  • Digital comics need to be sold differently than print comics.
    Unlike printed matter, it is easy to search the contents of digital files and re-organize them in a multitude of different ways without making any changes to the content. Using this to sell comic books in different sets, packages and bundles could go a long way to making it worth spending the money on a legal download. Bundling comic books based on whether they’re part of an event, created by the same author, etc, then selling them en masse with one click would make life a lot easier for a shopper. Using the fact that digital information can be easily cross-referenced and using this to sell more comics in a simpler way just makes sense.

With these really basic problems about the industry out the way, (and I’m sure that others can find more that is needed, these are just the most glaring errors), the basic problems associated with the user-interface on digital comic books could begin to be addressed. It is past time to examine the content with an eye towards reformatting comic books so that reading online is a more instinctive experience. Good design is invisible, because it works so well that the content it serves just flows without people being aware of why or how. Right now the act of reading comic books online takes a conscious effort, the reader is always aware of the process of reading. This is a dramatic loss in the experience of losing oneself in the comic book reading and can only be rectified by a new perspective on the design as it applies to the digital space.

14 Comments

Frankly, I think a lot of these… issues you have with digital comics are relegated to the concept of digital comics as available via the web services like you would find on MARVEL’s website. That flash or silverlight interface is clunky and hard to use. Additionally, there’s the fact that the publishers are attempting to LICENSE the content to you, and as such keep you from manipulating actual files. Again, look at the MARVEL digital comics product; there’s no way for a user to download a comic that they have paid for in a format that is open and easy to utilize.

All that said, I’ve been reading digital comics in CBR/CBZ format for nigh upon a decade now. Personally, I find it easier to consume comics using offline (but digital) reading tools as opposed to the online FLASH-based comics or even the physical copy.

The statements…
“No one has taken the comic book and recreated it to live on computers”
and
“Comics could cost less to download, because of the money saved on printing costs.”
…are in somewhat conflict.

Additional features cost time and effort. You want to be able to search by word balloon text? Then the text will need to be OCR’d or retyped manually. You want panel-to-panel transitioning? Someone has to post produce that and engineer it. Every thing you’d want that’s not part of the original will add to the cost of production. It could even add to the cover price of the printed comic, if the costs are of digitization distributed.

If it was just a matter of scanning a page and posting it as a JPG, then the additional costs are negligible. If you want more than that, it’ll cost more.

Agreed on a lot of points. What would sell me on digital comics is:

1) An interface that allowed me to sort, read, and search collections by character, creatives (artist, writer, letter if I want), story arc/event, date of publication, etc. There are already a number of third party database programs that offer this functionality but without the ability to view the actual issues. Someone has to be able to put the two together.
2) A compression format that lets me keep a LOT of comics in a small amount of space. The ability of my iPod to hold my entire music collection is epic. If a single portable device could hold my entire comic collection. . .that would blow me away.
3) A lower price point. Let’s face it, $3 or $4 for a standard digital comic just isn’t going to work for me. We’ve come to expect a lot of entertainment value at that price point. While I’m willing to spend it on paper comics because of the “collectible” impulse, if we go digital, I immediately compare it to all other digital media and find it overpriced. Besides, early ventures in digital comics (the CD-ROM collections) taught me to enjoy hundreds of comics for a $50 price point. Hard to justify rolling that back. Besides, taking out printing, distribution, and shelf-space overhead, digital comic books would logically seem to be able to be produced for much cheaper.
4) Day and date publishing. I don’t want to have to wait months to get my books.

Some things that I think would be great perks but not deal-breakers for me:
1) Buy paper, get digital copy for free. Why pay twice? Heck, it might even start the movement over to digital-only by getting people to try digital out.
2) And my absolute dream, I’d love digital comics to offer a slightly different experience. No, not motion comics, but I’d love to be able to toggle the word balloons on and off. I’m often floored by the beauty of unlettered preview pages. It would be amazing to be able to look at every page in a comic this way when I want to.

So, that’s what it would take to sell me. I’m pretty sure I’m sticking to paper for a good deal longer.

Look at the iTunes model you can get your standard audio tracks for .99¢ or purchase ‘plus’ tracks with improved sound at an additional cost.

A similar scenario can be applied to digital comics, consumers should be able to choose between low-end directly scanned pages for one price (or free if you purchased the physical version of the book) or an enhanced version which would allow the user to; remove word balloons, see the penciled version of the page, search text, etc.

Give consumers the choice to view what they want, how they want.

I agree wholeheartedly that digital comics should cost less than print and that they should be made more available.

However, I don’t need comics bundled together. That would make for a large file, and my e-reader may not like it. I’m okay with reading individual issues.

I’m also okay with reading cbr format and not having pop-up text boxes or whatever else people may think the comic needs because it’s now digital. I read digital comics, just as I read print ones. I can concentrate on one frame at a time and I can see two page spreads of action, depending on the page of the comic book.

I don’t need comics to talk to me or become animated. I just want to be able to carry them around on my e-reader like my other e-books — that aren’t animated and don’t talk to me.

I wish the comic book publishers would spend less time on their fancy comic book reader apps and sell me some cbrs!

I think bundled comics refer to bundles of comics that can be purchased as a set, not to a bunch of comics rolled into one file. The store/software should be smart enough to notice that you are buying part of a crossover and ask if you want to buy the rest of the set at the same time. At a discount if the publishers are smart. You see it on Amazon all the time. This isn’t rocket science.

If the publishers were really smart they would go a step further. Their iTunes equivalent would let you sort and slice and dice by character and writer and penciler and every other criteria you can imagine. And then it would get smart. It would ask you things like
“You already own half of Grant Morrison’s output. You can complete your collection now for 40% off. And automatically subscribe to everything new so it’s waiting in your inbox ten seconds after release”
There should be little links embedded in the pages of every issue. Interested in a villain? Click here for their first appearance issue. For every past interaction they have had with a given character. Every time they have been written by a particular author.

Interested in the newest big event? Click here to fill out your collection with every issue that leads into it. Final-Final-We-Mean-It-This-Time Crisis? All the previous Crisis’s right here, right now for a one-time special offer. All we need is a direct line to your credit card.

The publishers should be selling digital crack. They have half a century of backlog. Hundreds of thousands of linked stories and characters. They should be pushing them singly and in packs and runs and every other sorted and collected format they can wrap their twisted greedy little minds around. Sell you a couple big crossovers and then offer to fill in the missing single issues for the respective series for a one-time discount. And then sign you up for monthly new issues.

But they won’t.

They won’t because that would require a couple things that they are not willing to consider. First, it would mean an end to the digital format panic. The Internets are out to get us! Oh no! Which would mean releasing the comics in a readable format without ten million restrictions. It would also mean formats that are cross-compatible. Open in the same sense that mp3 or avi or mp4 or any other format. If they are smart they will just take the .cbr/cbz formats and expand them for extra features. Own the current community. But that would require admitting that they are selling a product. Which brings us to point number two.

Digital comics mean admitting that the comic companies are in the content business. The business where they make content and then try and sell it for as much money as possible. You might think this is obvious but for a few decades now the industry hasn’t been in the content business. It’s been in the collectables business. Right now comic sales have more in common with the $79.99 limited edition Electra busts that gets sold next to them than with the paperbacks or hard covers at the Chapters around the corner.

Comics as they currently stand are a limited edition product sold through specialty shops with a back market that relies on artificial scarcity.

I’ve seen sales numbers for the iPad around 20 million. That’s not including PCs or other digital reading methods. By the end of the year that iPad number is likely to be closer to 30 million. Given that there are less than 4000 comic stores is the US, it won’t be long before more people have access to an iPad than a local comic store.

The comic companies are content businesses that are selling though a collectables distribution channel. They are tied to huge corporate interests and beholden to a very fragile base and distribution channel. There are massive systemic problems standing in the way of any real change.

I would like a function that automatically added 150 words of Chris Claremont-style narration to every panel.

There’s a simple answer to why all of those problems exist, and the comics companies themselves have fessed up to it. The Direct Market. They don’t want to piss off the Direct Market retailers. If they did anything approaching a viable digital comics option, the Direct Market retailers would piss themselves worrying that they were being made obsolete. The fact of the matter is that this is no different than music or traditional publishing companies. They are beholden to their original format, progress be %@#$%#. As long as the DM sees digital as competition, the major publishers will not do digital right for fear of cutting of what is considered their main market.

Digital and Print comics are priced the same because while printing cost differ, the investment remains the same. The creators and editors who worked on it remain the same. Yes, you are removing is a simple overhead. But you are adding the cost of those whooshy-wooshy effects, Apple/Google/Micorsoft/Amazon’s pound-of-flesh for the privilege of providing content on their platforms and actually marketing that content.

Now, if a comic is to be produced specifically for the web, things might be different. But that avenue itself is going through it’s own seismic shift with regards to UX. A designer now has to not only take into account different sizes, but different interfaces and in the near future, if Amazon/B&N made a push for their devices for online consumption, different mediums altogether. I myself am a web-designer and I already have an idea of a web-comic app that caters to web creators in general, but ensuring compatibility across multiple screen-sizes, devices and interfaces takes a lot of time.

Yea…what mackejn said. The larger issue of why is that none of content producers whether comic, movie, tc, music, want to shift from there old tried and true business models or alienate their old world distribution channel partners.

The other problem is take the idea to its logical conclusion that one day media is ONLY distributed electronically – no more print comics, DVD’s, CD’s etc. That could be devastating to the global economy. The old world jobs in production, shipping, and retail would never be replaced. Instead it would shift to IT network content delivery programmer type jobs, but overall it would be net job loss. Mostly the delivery of comic, album, movie would be automated. It takes a lot less manpower to deliver a file electronically than physically

This is the inevitable cycle of technological progress as Orwell predicted. We reach a point where there is only so much that needs to be produced, so the only way to keep the masses employed is through endless destructive war.

It’s very true that media companies have been very careful about testing the waters of digital media. No one wants to upset their current distribution channels.

However, comics are in an interesting place where unlike most other forms of media their potential digital market is going to be larger than their traditional market sooner rather than later. You can’t really say that about other media. Music and television sales have enjoyed effective 100% market availability for quite a while. iTunes and Netflix haven’t made music or video available to anyone who didn’t have some means of purchasing it already. At the end of the day the transition to digital means finding new ways to sell to old customers.

Comics are different. Given the state of the direct market and independent comic shops I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that the number of people who are potentially interested in purchasing comics is larger than the number of people who are interested in purchasing comics and have a reliable and convenient local shop. And it won’t be too long before the number of people who have access to a digital reader and are interested in purchasing comics is a bigger group than those who have access to a physical store.

If you include PCs they have already passed that point long ago.

Among the various forms of media, comics may be in the unique position of having to choose between their traditional markets and significantly larger digital markets.

Comics should be distribuited in the flip book format even on the web, not just for IPod or IPad formats and smartphones.Also is too many nations and langagues, many translations, and a less care about presentation.

I totally agree with this article… but I think the only way this could be done is to re-configure the content for digital… or better yet forget about print and create new content just for digital.

The author of this piece is right on the money when she says the entire idea for comics has to be re thought when you bring it to the digital medium. I mean you can’t read it in full page mode because the type is too small so you go into frame by frame mode and part of the panel gets chopped off… and if you want it to fill the screen you have to rotate the the tablet like crazy. It’s like reading a comic from 10 feet away with a telescope… and they expect us to pay full price for that when there’s no distribution cost and ‘brick and mortar’ cost!

Not only that, I think the comic “page metaphor” doesn’t really translate to digital. If you have a digital device that can view a story panel by panel, why do you need the full page mode… it just gives the plot away.
Comic publishers should think 5 or 10 years down the road when tablets will be as thin as paper and twice as functional. They need to publish comics that are specifically designed from the ground up for tablets….  like these guys:

http://thecomicmachine.com/

Now comics like this would truly use the medium to it’s fullest. Not repackaging an old world print medium and jamming it into the new world digital engine.
Just look at the iPad version of Wired magazine. They didn’t just digitize their magazine into a pdf so you have to pinch and zoom to read it like a map surveyor. They redesigned it as if print didn’t ever exist. Now that’s forward thinking.

[…] about why digital comics have been slow to take off. They’re too expensive. They’re inconvenient compared to print. They’re too easy to get for […]

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