Zuda Comics finally launched themselves out of beta... and didn't really improve much in the process.
Let me clarify something right off the bat here: this is NOT a commentary on the content of the various Zuda-published comics. I quite like many of the comics. But the interface Zuda provides -- and, indeed, their whole marketing approach -- is really lacking. I'll start with some minor issues.
First, here's how the "new and improved" Zuda player looked when I first loaded it this morning...
I can sort of understand the error messages, since I'm using Google Chrome as my browser and a lot of people still only check if you've got IE, Firefox or Safari. That does point to A) poor design judgement by creating a browser limitation in the first place, and B) out-of-date thinking since Chrome launched with a larger market share than Safari, and now constitutes 7% of users' browsers compared to Safari's 3.3% share. (Source: W3Schools.com) But what also stuck me is that the supposed improvement in text legibility wasn't evident, and there seems to be a visual problem with the bottom of the comic.
Checking the same page in IE provides this result...
The text here does indeed appear easier to read, and the issue with the bottom of the comic is non-existent. While the comic is readable within Chrome, it's clear that Zuda's developers aren't checking against that browser, making for an unnecessarily awkward reading experience to roughly 1 out of every 13 of their users.
These issues, of course, can be resolved relatively easily. Just like they easily resolved the poor naming conventions they used to use. I fully expect my comments and those of other Chrome users to filter back to the Zuda folks, and the developers will make corrections accordingly. So a number of users will be better catered to. Of course, that still doesn't say anything about iPhone users, who are completely ignored since Flash is simply not viewable on iPhones. And the base problem of using Flash in the first place will remain.
See, there's a larger problem with using Flash to deliver web comics, beyond iPhone users not being able to partake of the content. The model Zuda is using is what you would call a "pull" -- Zuda is actively trying to pull readers to their site on a regular, recurring basis to read their comics. They have to reach out to users, get their attention, and convince them to click over to their site.
Many (I daresay "most") webcomics these days instead opt for a "push" model. That is, they push their content out to the user via some form of syndication (RSS, XML, etc.) and the reader can view the content on a device and format of their choosing. Maybe it's through a feed reader, maybe it's through a customized iPhone app, maybe it's part of a portal set-up someone created, maybe something else altogether. The point is that people can move the content around quickly and easily.
There's a basic difference in thinking at the core here. My role as a web designer is to make it as easy as possible for a user to get to the content they're looking for. It should look good, but navigability and readability are my paramount concerns. Form follows function. Many others aren't willing or able to step outside of their own mindset to see things from a user's perspective, and develop something based on what works best for them. I actually caused a bit of a dust-up at work back in March when I kept insisting the project I was working on was being poorly thought-out and executed because it wasn't keeping the end user in mind. My manager was quite confused at my maddening frustration until she realized that my suggestions that were frequently being over-ruled were indeed in the best interests of the end user and the efficiency of the end product; I was upset because it was corporate politics that were more often ruling the decision-making, and not the usability of the product. It could easily have been so much better, but short-sighted managers preferred being able to give easy answers to their superiors than making a quality product.
The situation, I daresay, is similar at Zuda. Using a Flash platform to host comics forces users to their site. That would increase site traffic, which are some nice, easy numbers for managers to understand. This is decidedly NOT the best way to win over users, though, and prevents the users you do win over from becoming as enthusiastic as they might otherwise be. They're not as likely to recommend Zuda comics as others, not because the comics aren't good, but because it's physically and mentally harder to do so.
Think about Keyboard Cat...
As of this post, this particular video has garnered 1.25 million views. Other Keyboard Cat videos are even more popular. The reason WHY they get so much traffic is precisely because -- thanks to the way YouTube is set up -- I can embed the video here in my blog. I can click a button from the original YouTube page and shoot an email about it to anyone on the web. If someone's watching another Keyboard Cat video, this could show up as a "related video" you might also enjoy. It went viral precisely because YouTube didn't demand that you return to their site to view it.
You can't do that with any of the Zuda comics. In fact, BECAUSE OF THE FLASH PLAYER, you can't even send a link to a particular page within a comic. If I want you to see page 42 of Night Owls, the best I can do is open my email program, start and address a new email, cut and paste the link into the new email, and write a message telling the recipient how to navigate to page 42. Granted, that's not terribly difficult, but it sure as hell ain't as easy as simply clicking a button from the program I'm already in!
Similarly, the messaging system isn't tied to a particular page, just the overall comic. So that someone reading a comment from a week or two ago is not likely to discover just what page of the comic the post was referring to! Again, they're forcing the user into actions (coming back to the site within a specified time frame) to engage with the comic. If each page or two of the comic were given it's web page, then it would indeed be easy to tie comments to the comic page in question.
Also similarly, ongoing reading of a comic is hampered if the reader uses multiple browsers. If you happen to use the same browser you used the last time, no problem, but if you come back from a different browser or different computer entirely (say, if you check it from both work and home, or if you check from a library while you're on vacation) you've got to navigate your way back from page one. Compare that against a webcomic where you're always served up the latest installment from the home page, regardless of when/where/how/if you've looked at it before.
The model many (again, I daresay "most") webcomics follow allows for a much greater degree of flexibility than any Flash player I've seen can handle. The only benefit a Flash player has it will bring more traffic to your actual site. Which looks good on paper, but not when you compare it against the more important number (number of readers) which would almost certainly be higher under a "push" model. I'd be curious to see the readership numbers of any Zuda comic compared to something like PhD or Templar, AZ -- I'd wager Zuda's numbers are much lower.
Many of the comics Zuda publishes are good, and I like that they had the forethought to format their comics for a horizontal computer screen. But I firmly believe that the Flash player they use is substantially hampering Zuda's potential success, and is a prime example of how NOT to implement a webcomic. Imagine if they had the same quality of comics, the same DC marketing dollars, but a good display implementation... they could really knock things out of the park!