Redesigning Web Comics: reader survey revelations

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I’ve been on hiatus since beginning my web design career three years ago, but now I’m getting back into making web comics. I’m building a new site, RacheltheGreat.com, to showcase them.

I have a lot of ideas about how to design the new site, but I’m designing for an audience, not myself. So it behooves me to ask them what they want. After putting up a “coming soon page” (covered in a previous article), I ran two surveys past my readers, soliciting them through my livejournalDeviantArtTwitter and Facebook. I’m sharing the results here for the benefit of the comicking and design communities.

Today let’s investigate my first survey, where I asked readers themsleves, their online habits, and their relationship with my comic. (We’ll look at the second survey tomorrow.)

Who is reading my comics?

Most respondents fell into one of three categories:

  1. First wave female fans. These young women are about my age and they found me through gURL.com back in the day. They are usually in college or starting their first job. Very tech savvy, mature, and devoted.
  2. Second wave female fans. There are fewer second-wavers than first-wavers. These young women found my comics after I went on hiatus by poking around the gURL.com archives or by stumbling over my work by accident. They tend to be tweens and teens, usually smart, subculture-y types, manga and anime fans, who prize individualism.
  3. Male fans. This is the smallest group of readers I have, but they are some of my most dedicated readers. They usually find my comics either by meeting me in person at a convention or through their female relations, be it a girlfriend or a sister. Most have tech-based jobs and are hard core geeks, and of all the groups, they have the most money to spend, as first-wavers are paying off student loans or making major life purchases like cars and second-wavers don't have credit cards yet.

Most respondents have been reading for 5-8 years. That’s a long retention time for a comic that’s been on hiatus 3 years!

What sites are they using?

Facebook took the lion’s share with a whopping 86% of respondents claiming to use it on a regular basis. Next came DeviantArt (60%) and Twitter (33%). Myspace came in last with only two people vouching for it. However, if I had solicited responses on my MySpace page, the numbers would be skewed in that site’s favor.

Readers' Social Networking Site Usage
Site Fan Usage
MySpace 2%
Facebook 86%
Twitter 33%
Deviant Art 60%
Other 19%

Why do they like my comics?

It was clear that readers love Tuna, the smart-alecking black cat character. (I can never write Tuna out of the comic now.) But aside from the talking kitty, readers repeatedly cited the snarky female lead, gothic sensibilities, and tightly woven plots as what made them fall in love with the series. Many people repeated that Rachel the Great only looks like a girly-girl manga.

I was surprised at how often the same words kept turning up. So many people used the same phrases over and over again that I had to take note of them: Can relate to, funny, intelligent, refreshing, true-to-yourself, feminist, not too girly girl, original, issues, emotions, fun, relatable, humorous, witty.

How and when do they want comics updates?

44% of respondents said they would pop by the same day every week with no prompting so long as I updated on the same day each week. 26% said they’d just visit randomly and catch up. As for actually receiving updates, 32% requested email alerts, 28% requested Twitter, and only 16% would use RSS (although they were very adamant that there be RSS). For the 19% who responded “other”, they mentioned livejournal and Facebook as avenues for updates.

People either didn’t care what day new comics get posted, or if they did care, they preferred Wednesday because it’s “Hump Day.”

These findings suggest that:

  1. I need to update on a regular schedule and
  2. that I need to ensure users can subscribe to get email alerts when new comics go live, something I can do quite easily with Feedburner.

What features are most important to them?

I gave participants a list of different features I thought they might like on the site in addition to weekly comics. I had an idea of what I wanted, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of time building something if my readers didn’t want it.

Other features readers would appreciate
Site Feature Requests
a gallery of more artwork 75%
merchandise/shop 70%
art prints 35%
blog 68%
conventions I'm attending 65%
other comics I recommend reading 79%
Other 5%

I’ve decided to hold off on building a gallery because so many readers also have DeviantArt accounts. It would be much easier to prominently link to that community, and I’m more likely to upload art there for the external validation that community offers then be too tired to do it all over again via WordPress. I’ve added a “recommended reading” blogroll to my comic pages’ sidebars, and the blog is coming built-in. I haven’t started attending conventions again, so I don’t need to worry about that one just yet, but it’s nice to see so many people excited about that prospect. My take-away from this is that after the site launches, I need to start extending my theme to include a merchandise shop.

Mobile device use

I asked, “Do you havea mobile device, like a phone or PSP that you use to read comics? If so, what device?” Of the 57 participants, 6 reported owning an iphone, 1 reported owning a Droid, and 1 reported a Nintendo DS. 6 iphones may not seem like a lot now, but it’s worth keeping in mind for th future.

Things I will do differently next time

I wish I had asked where people read web comics. Are they in a quiet dorm? Sneaking a peek at work or school? Behind a firewall that blocks sites that use bad words? Are they rushed or relaxing? I don’t know what my readers’ context is, and knowing that would help me design a web comic experience that facilitates their situation. For instance, if the majority of my readers are sneaking a peek while their boss isn’t looking, I don’t want the site to have a bright pink background, or I risk getting them in trouble if their boss glances in that direction.

Why you should run surveys, too.

You should run surveys, too, because it will help you better understand your visitors. We often think we know who we are writing for and what they want, but as one of my fans once told me, “Assumptions make an ASS out of yoU and ME.” It’s easy to go to far and overlook something important to your readers. There could be problems you didn’t even know existed. Communication is key. Love your readers. Serve your readers.

Tune next week for the results of the second survey, where we’ll learn how to design a web comics site for the ultimate reader experience!

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