Monday, September 1, 2008

Google: Great Web App builders, awful Web Comic publishers

I haven't had an opportunity to use Google's Chrome browser yet, so I'll reserve my opinion on its user experience enhancements until I do. However, I have had an opportunity to read the web comic that Google posted outlining the new features and philosophy behind Chrome. One thing I am able to conclusively say to Google- as far as publishing Web comics goes, don't quit your day job.

Google recruited Scott McCloud, the creator behind the excellent Understanding Comics and its followups, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics. These books really drill down into the essential truths behind what drives the comic book medium on paper, and how it can successfully make the transition to new platforms and distribution methods. Check out this neat web comic that uses an innovative method of inter-panel navigation; it's the closest thing I've seen on the web to simulating the peripheral 'clues' you get from reading a printed page panel-to-panel. This comic does everything right, from screen friendly formatting to an easy to navigate and informative index below the panels:

That's why I was so surprised that the Google Chrome comic suffers from utterly awful usability. In a nutshell:

  • The pages are formatted like a printed comic- in a taller, rather than wider (also referred to as 'portrait' vs. 'landscape') orientation. That means that every page is a scroll, even on my 23" HD monitor.

  • The navigation is on the very bottom of each page- two Javascript links that go forward, or back. No index or method for jumping to the very beginning, or end- if you're on the last page (38), and want to go back to page 6, you're either hitting 'back' 32 times or starting over from the original link.
  • The pages themselves are flat jpeg images, with zero semantic information about the content on the pages. Ironically, Google's own search engine would pretty much utterly disregard these pages, with no textual information about the content and Javascript links its browser would ignore.

I paged through this web comic in utter disbelief- how could Scott McCloud, the paragon of exploring new and innovative methods in creating comics for the online medium, have contributed to such a mess? 

The answer is on Scott's site, in an apparently hastily assembled page* linked from his homepage.  The comic itself was designed and drawn as a printed piece, intended to be sent to journalists and bloggers as part of the announcement. When the mailing went out earlier than intended, scanned copies of the comic began to appear online. In response to the demand, Google apparently slapped their own hastily assembled Web version up - access was more important than accuracy and craft, in this case. 

However, this begs the question- if you're creating a piece of documentation intending to communicate the benefits and thinking behind a new way to browse the Web, shouldn't you anticipate that it will be consumed on the web at some point? And as such, shouldn't you prep a Web version well in advance of an announcement that will, inherently, break on the Web in the first place?

At least it ends up being a program management and product marketing failure rather than an unbelievable gaffe on the part of one of the creators I admire most. I'm sure Scott is cringing ten times as much as I am as he pages through his most visible Web comic to date, and is probably furiously pushing pixels to fix it right now. 

In the meantime, I'll leave you with my favorite panel from the work- there's just so much right with the intentional wrongness of this panel- it could be a whole blog post on its own.

*I assume it's a quick reaction to the breaking news because, as of this writing, the title is incorrect - it reads 'Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection' rather than anything to do with Google - and none of the links on the global nav work. Based on the attention this site and comic is getting, it will probably be fixed by the time you read this.