Finite Canvas, Better Frame
The following is something I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s not a final thought, merely something I’ve been pondering that I thought I’d share.
Some of you may or may not know, I have recently been hosting The Webcomic Beacon Newscast. It’s a discussion news roundup of the week’s comics news, with as much webcomic stuff as we can find to cover. Mostly it winds up being about plenty of other things, but recently we got on the topic of innovation in comics (you can listen here if you like). Somewhere in the middle, I started ranting about one place webcomics really need innovation: the “web” part.
No, this isn’t a ranting about the infinite canvas all Scott McCloud style. There is a plenty good case for keeping comics to the sort of format (or formats) that they are. But I do think that the framing around that canvas, the website it self could use an overhaul. Let’s start with what comics already have going for them.
What do most comic sites have?
- Each comic on their own page.
- First / Previous / Next / Last Buttons.
- Maybe a way to jump to specific spots in the archive (if it’s a story comic) or to a specific comic.
- A “Random” button.
- Maybe a blurb with the comic. It could go with the comic or it could be whatever is the latest blurb on the site is.
We see this again and again and again and again and again and again, on almost every webcomic site, and we have for the last 15 years or so. I just made up 15 years as a number, but I remember seeing sites built like this back when I started reading webcomics in around 1999, so I can attest to about that number. Now I know what you’re thinking, I’m picking on the webcomic CMS systems out there, but I’m not. First off, these systems do a lot of things right!
- It’s a standard. People who already read webcomics get it, and are used to it.
- It uses navigation that a lot of people seem to be able to figure out.
- It makes people click through a lot of pages, which is good for some ad networks, which helps support comics in lots of cases.
They also have their faults:
- Hard to find a way through all those comics, especially finding specific ones.
- So. Much. Clicking. And. Loading. And. Clicking. Oh the clicking.
- All that clicking and loading wastes a lot of time and bandwidth, for those of us that are running sites and worry about bandwidth a bit and generally care about such things.
- Seeing new readers try to find their way around webcomic sites for the first time over the years, the arrows don’t really seem to speak to people’s needs. People figure it out but sometimes takes a bit.
- For sites that are random, why does it matter which comic was latest? There’s little or no contextual information of “other comics like it”.
- For really big archives, skipping around a giant archive has never been easy or advantageous.
Okay, let me stop for a minute here. I feel like I have to say this, at some point. Because I know you’re thinking it. “Ross! Your site is in ComicPress, which is exactly all the things you’re talking about. What’s the deal? And why are you talking to yourself?”
ComicPress / WordPress is a great interface that has made life for webtoonists much easier than a lot of the other CMS systems out there. And there are plenty of other good ones. But all of them are referencing a style and template that dates back well over 10 years. Why are we so addicted to this format? It seems to me that many comics would work just as well (if not better) in even the standard blog format, like Cat Vs Human does in a Blogspot template. I can just scroll down and read a bunch all at once, no clicking.
So what I’m saying is, we need to rethink how our sites work, in the same way we are all constantly rethinking our payment methods, content delivery methods, stores, story lines and artwork. Let’s rethink our websites to be not just up to date but possibly ahead of the game! Now I’m not saying we go apeshit crazy and make something experimental and unusable. I’m saying we create something that plays off of exactly what people have been using every day. We can update the interface to make it more usable and therefore more addictive for readers. Below are some web sites that have features that seem to stand out at me because at the end of the day, your webcomic isn’t in competition with other webcomics, it’s in competition with every other thing on the Internet. So what are some big Internet time-sucks that might inspire some design changes?
What else is out there?
Facebook: It’s got that chat bar thingy on the bottom. When you scroll to the bottom of the page, you can see older posts and they just load at the bottom without loading a new page.
Tumblr (specifically the dashboard): It loads more posts at the bottom. They just keep loading automatically when you have on “infinite scroll” and it is SUPER ADDICTING. You can favorite things and such while staying on the one page, so I can favorite and browse and favorite all day.
Twitter’s new site (the site, not the apps): Posts on the left. You can click on one, and while staying on the same page can see more information on the right sidebar appear. That right sidebar info stays put even as you scroll. You scroll to the bottom and you see more posts automatically without leaving the page. The header information stays along the top no matter what (web designers call that “persistant navigation”, at least I do).
YouTube: Related videos. How often have you watched a video and then watched a related, and a related, and a related, and a related…
Google Reader: You do a whole lot of reading through there, very quickly, and share without disrupting your experience.
Wikipedia / IMDB and other database-linked sites: All that linked content creates a huge web of things to click through. Start on one thing and then wind up going through a million things based off of it.
Netflix: I’ve gotten sucked in plenty of times to adding a ton of shows to my list. How can I not? First of all, when I rate them, it keeps getting to know me better. Second, once I rate them, it knows me better and can rate more for me. Finally, whenever I add one to my queue, it shows me more I’ll like, and if I add one of those it shows me more I’ll like, and if I add one of those… Kind of like YouTube. What I’m trying to say is I have a very long Netflix queue I guess.
StumbleUpon: People love random. Random buttons are consistently one of the most clicked buttons on webcomic sites.
Forums: Sorry guys, I’m not a forums guy. But hey, go nuts.
How can we use these features to our advantage?
I’m sensing some themes here to all these sites I’m mentioning! Here’s some things going on behind the scenes with all of those mentioned above:
- Smoother Reading Experience: Less loading, less pages, faster reading. Using script in the page that makes the site move through comics smoother than reloading everything, maybe even having an “infinite scroll” like Tumblr. Imagine how fast you could read through a comic archive if you didn’t have to keep clicking!
- Related Content: Like YouTube and Netflix, if you like this you’ll probably like all these other comics that go along the same topic. Makes sense, especially if a comic is a “joke a day” style. When people find a funny chart-comic, maybe they want to see all the comics on charts / coffee / cursing / the same video game / have boobs in them. Highlighted related content (not just tags below posts) could really bring this to the forefront and increase time spent on a site.
- Seamless Clicking / Sharing: Being able to share / comment / reference comics without leaving a page, so you can keep on reading but still be participating in the site. (Don’t worry, I’m still looking out for unique URLs for those of us that try to share content.)
- Persistent Elements: Persistent elements that use HTML / CSS to their advantage. Like having the navigation buttons in places that don’t move so when there’s a longer comic, if I want to move on I don’t have to scroll to the bottom just to find where the nav butons got off to. This is the most annoying thing when I’ve done archive dives of comics. Or for that matter, having persistent information like important news or ads might not be a bad idea.
For that matter, there’s so many new tools at the developer’s disposal!
- Images that only load in when you need them (saving on time and space and generally looking slick when they load in).
- Animation to smoothly take people up, down and over on pages.
Now most of this looks at things from the reader’s perspective. But what about the author’s perspective? Sure, having people read and happily reading will probably increase time on the site and traffic, but look at it this way. Creating a more seamless experience makes people want to interact with the site more. More time on the site means more love for your stuff. More love means more loyalty and support.
So what now? What can we do with this information? I realize that the bulk of us are comic creators and not web designers or developers, and for many just getting a site up is a Herculean task. But I’ve always been amazed how many webcartoonists are designers and developers, and it turns out so are lots of our readers. So to those of you out there who are readers, designers, developers, and other artists, I’m issuing a challenge: Let’s come up with some new ideas for the “web” in “webcomic”.
Clearly I want to work on it, but I don’t want to work on it alone! I want you guys to help. In the comments, discuss the post AND help me collect some more information:
- GENERAL DISCUSSION: What sites (comics or otherwise) do you waste a lot of time on? Is that site using any sort of feature or technique that really hooks you, kind of like the things I mentioned above? Let’s start a discussion and pool ideas of good ideas and bad! What isn’t working about webcomic sites? What would you do to fix it?
- HELP WITH RESEARCH: What webcomic sites have you seen that do anything innovative with their design and navigation? I thought about MS Paint Adventures, but that is the only other one I could think of.
- DESIGNERS, DEVELOPERS AND CREATORS: Would you like to help me work on this? Do you think this is crazy? Is any of the stuff I’m saying more harmful than helpful? Say so in the comments, or find me on Twitter (@rosscott) or email (systemcomic at gmail). I want to start a discussion and get new ideas rolling.
- FINALLY, TO SHOOT FOR THE MOON: If I did a Kickstarter, with the goal being to come up with new WordPress templates based on this stuff to the webcomic community, would you donate? A long shot I know, but if a bunch of people would be wiling to fund it (whatever it is) I’d be willing to work on it.
So there you have it. A line drawn in the sand, so to speak. Can we take the same comics and find a way to make their sites better? Can you think of ways to help? Because at the end of the day, a great website can take a good comic and make it into an entire universe in which users/readers can get lost. And on that day, webcomics will take full advantage of what’s out there technologically, and maybe create a better frame for their comic canvas.