Welcome to the Stage: Webcomics & Expectations

Welcome to the first article of the KISS: Usability & Webcomics 101 series.

So What Is Usability?

Jakob Nielsen defines usability as “a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use”. It is all about how the site looks and behaves, as well as how easily new and experienced visitors can navigate it to the information they want. A good site draws people in (without using dirty tricks). A bad site will send many of them screaming.

In practical terms, this often means adhering to the conventions created by others in your field. For example, web surfers are accustomed to links being underlined or changing appearance when they are moused over. If you leave that out, some portion of your visitors will not realize a word is clickable. It won’t drive everyone away, but you could end up driving off or confusing potential clients who are not as aggressive when exploring a new site.

In specialized website environments like a webcomic site, you have the additional challenge of making the website comprehensible and attractive to both the initiated and those who have never heard of a webcomic before. Specialized features, such as comic navigation and archive pages, must be balanced with broader expected features such as site navigation and (often) blogs. Or your comic may be only one feature of a larger web-project. The behavior of a webcomic site is different and your consideration of usability should reflect that.

So what do people expect of your webcomic site? Read On After the Jump.

The Basic Webcomic Site

Since comics have been online since the late 1990s, certain expected features now make up the “classic” webcomic site and visitors expect to find them. Then and today these sites usually were much more complex but the minimum features your site needs to include to be a webcomic site (in my opinion anyway) are:

  • Comic: Any theme, format, and completeness. Webcomics are most frequently found on the homepage (as the Halfpixel guys say, it’s your best advertising), but there are some exceptions.
  • Comic Navigation: An independent navigation that allows readers to ‘page’ through your comic. Readers generally expect at minimum a Previous and Next button to carry them through your archive, but most people include First Comic and Latest Comic buttons as well.
  • The Archive: Which is a series of pages that allow readers to actually read the comics that have been posted in the past in a sequential fashion.

That’s it.

Of course most webcomic sites are much more complex than that and several additional features will help make your site more accessible & attractive to visitors. Most sites also include:

  • Archive Page: A page which provides some logical way for readers to enter your comic’s archive at several points. Classically this has been organized by date, but several other options are available.
  • About Page(s): This can be one or more pages about the comic, the characters, the creator(s), her cat, and pretty much anything else.
  • Blog: Or some other form of communication from the creator to the readers. Today Twitter is very popular, but chat boxes and, less frequently, forums are also employed.
  • Additional Pages: Such as a store, fan art page, access to other projects, etc.
  • Site Navigation: Which provides a method for bringing all of these features together.

As a webcomicker, you want to be able to bring all of these features and the content you want to share together in a way that answers Nielsen’s definition of good usability. Consider the purpose of your site (i.e.-people reading your webcomic) and then bend the website to support that purpose.

Exceptions

This series will be primarily focused on these basic or classical features the readers expect to find when they’re exploring webcomics, but as exceptions to the “common knowledge” rules crop up I will attempt to address them. Certainly, there are many times when your particular project may require deviation and nothing here is written in stone.

Do some successful webcomickers break the conventional comic site rules? Certainly. But there is the risk of losing new readers, especially if the convention break hides the purpose of your site. Sometimes a webcomic is simply strong enough to overcome minor usability issues and sometimes the conventions are replaced with a structure that works just as well but compliments the webcomic and site design better. By understanding usability and the expectations of today’s webcomic reader, you’ll be in a better position to make decisions about that risk yourself.

Suggested Activity

Visit a few webcomics sites and a few sites that have comics online (such as a newspaper). Would you consider both to be “webcomics”? What features does a webcomic site have that the newpaper sites lack?

References:

Nielsen, Jakob. Usability 101. Published 2003. Accessed 5/6/2010.

Krug, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think! Published 2000.

HalfPixel. How to Make Webcomics. Published 2008.

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