UX Testing on Comics with a Target Audience

UX Testing on Comics with a Target Audience

My goal with RAWR! Dinosaur Friends is to create informational fiction that doesn’t feel like a lecture. I want my readers to feel curious about the world. Not only that, I want them to feel equipped to explore that curiosity. In generally I’d really love to make science feel less…enthroned(?) As a static collection of facts. I also find the usual hodgepodge of ‘safe’ dinosaur facts pretty dull. Most conclusive, immutable facts we have about dinosaurs are dates and locations where their remains were found because we can never go back in time to see a living dinosaur. While I understand that a book having dated or disproven evidence is problematic, I have to ask…Where is the wonder? Where is the exploration? Science isn’t lists. Science isn’t facts. Science is an active, interactive pursuit.

When I first created RAWR! Dinosaur Friends as an armchair natural history blog, this spread on convergent evolution became quite popular. It resonated with over 2000 people. Maybe I could update the art and expand it with some sort of interactive exploration activity? Something with open-ended questions, so kids feel like they’re being engaged in a conversation, and invited to come to their own conclusions?

I updated my blog post as a full-color history concept with jokes, followed by a page of diagrams. The readers aren’t expected to form a specific answer by looking at these diagrams. The diagrams are there for comparison and maybe a little drawing practice. If someone from my target audience decided to give that a try, I would consider it a success.

I then showed these pages to my amazing writing group, the Night Writers, and esteemed scicomm author/illustrator Ellie Peterson stepped up to help! Her class of middle-schoolers was more than eager to help by looking at these spreads and writing their (hilariously candid) thoughts all over them. Thank you so much, Ellie! While Ellie’s students weren’t required to draw anything, she did ask them whether they would draw a diagram or not. Many of the responses were really cool. These kids are perceptive!


This was a really exciting and validating response! That’s all I really want readers to do, is to compare images for themselves, because scientists deal with exploring observations all the time.

No UX test (or comics creation process) is complete without at least one existential crisis. Maybe this kid was having a bad day…But, they had great notes on the other page’s bone diagrams so at least they were interested in the subject matter. Either way, it’s best for me to stay humble.

Statistics
Comments on the ‘fuzz’ joke in the opening spread:
“funny” [sic]
“Lol. :)” [sic]
“I dont know what the point of this is” [sic]

Total of 6th graders who indicated they would draw the skeletons: 3
Total of 6th graders who indicated they would not draw the skeletons: 2
Maybes on drawing the skeletons: 2
No answer on whether they would draw a skeleton or not: 5
Conclusion: When guided to these pages in an educational environment and given two options, 6th graders sometimes consider drawing dinosaur bones. Even when the 6th grader in question decided they wouldn’t draw the bones, they still wrote their observations of the bones on the page. That means readers are observing the differences in bones, which is the big thing I want readers to do with this book concept. The drawing suggestion is an extra activity for kids who really like comparing pterosaur wings to bird wings.

Grammatical corrections to dino chatspeak by 6th graders: 5
Conclusion: Pterosaurs and birds might brush up on their grammar!

What changes would I make in response to this data?
At the moment, I don’t know how I would edit my comic, because a lot of the ‘confusing layout’ notes would be solved with book binding firmly separating the pages. The speech bubbles on page two in the first spread are under review as something I should edit. The data pool was small and the comic is only a four-page sample, so I’ll try not to overcorrect. I am also going to have to revamp my original idea of making all the organisms talk in chatspeak, per a meeting with an editor who indicated I may have to rethink it and instead give them a silly typeface.

I was glad that many kids trusted their teacher enough to admit that they wouldn’t draw the diagrams because that indicated an environment where they could be honest. In general I trusted the answers they wrote. I’d have loved to see at least one attempt at drawing the diagrams, but the pages didn’t have any room for that (It’s meant to be an activity that takes place on a reader’s own paper outside of the book, anyway). If I work with an educator again, I may ask for drawing paper to be provided to see if kids actually want to draw bones or not. Sometimes a kid says ‘sure, yeah let’s do this’ but when it comes down to actually drawing they might hesitate.

My big takeaway from the UX test was that kids would, at least, interact with science in a comic format when given the environment and the materials. I can use that knowledge to help sell the concept overall of ‘interactive science’.


Also, this was the best feedback.

Comics Tip

Understanding a comic’s target audience is key to pitching it to an agent or even a publisher. Maybe a comics creator has an idea of who their readers should be, but isn’t quite sure. It’s hard to say what middle schoolers think is cool without querying the source. All sorts of things could have changed between the time someone is twelve years old and creating publishable comics.

My career as a UX/UI professional was short and depressing, but here are some of the things I learned that are helpful for parsing critical feedback.

  1. Involve the target audience as soon as possible (if there is one).
  2. Even a poorly-designed experiment is better than no experiment, but adjusting interpretations and improving experiments is key.
  3. The best way to get the most honest feedback is to not be present, personally.
  4. ‘Like’ and ‘Dislike’ are often less important than what people are specifically reacting to in the work. However, an overwhelming amount of either should be regarded as significant and allowed to influence what the project becomes.
  5. Nothing survives the audience.
  6. Data may be mathematical and immutable, but my response and proposed solutions are human and therefore subjective.

Ellie was really helpful to me when she offered to bring my work to her class because she became a neutral presenter for my work. The kids didn’t have to worry about offending or impressing me when they interacted with the comics pages. I also imagine that as their cool biology teacher, the kids involved trusted her and that also allowed them to give lots of feedback freely. As a result I have some nice talking points for when I pitch RAWR! Dinosaur Friends as a middle-grade graphic novel for publishers to pick up. I wouldn’t have had this knowledge about my specific project without her help.

Digital artwork of a pterosaur, a bird, and a bat in front of a square. The lines are blank for coloring.

If you want to be part of my next UX study, print this out, color it, post it somewhere, and tag me to come look at it. It’s licensed under CC-BY-NC 3.0.

 

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Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

I Completed a Monthly Challenge!For the month of August, I pledged to 'rough' 48 pages. Roughing a comic means to start drawing in the figures and backgrounds of each panel. Roughs are typically more polished than thumbnails, but they aren't necessarily polished. As I...

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

How to Draw a Whole New WorldOn August 15th, I was halfway through a self-appointed monthly comics challenge to create rough art for a 48-page short fantasy story. I'd been lenient with my goals, imagining that most of my time would be spent designing the environment...

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

A Break from the Webcomic DoldrumsI’ve been working hard on Warlock’d, but not in any capacity ready for public release. There is a lot of editing to be done on it (and has been done on it) and it gets overwhelming on a day-to-day basis. One issue has been that I’m...

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SAW Graphic Novel Development Month 4/6

SAW Graphic Novel Development Month 4/6

Has a colorful magenta and purple panel with three lettering effects inside. A Little Lettering over Lunch
Recently I had the very awesome and fun honor of guest speaking at a Kids Comics Unite Lunch n’ Learn session on comics lettering. I was invited by Janna Morishima to do a presentation for those who don’t know where to get started on this important aspect of comics creation. I view my own lettering skills as utilitarian, coming from a general graphic design/print background. My skills have successfully carried me through a dozen books via Scholastic and Little Bee Books. There are a lot of small tasks one can do to acquaint themself with digital lettering. There’s no need to go so deep as designing their own typefaces or completely hand-lettering hundreds of pages. Unless, of course, it’s fun!

For this presentation, I designed the above slides to help demystify lettering and make it seem more approachable to those who have never done it before, or who are looking for tricks to refresh their current experience. Some slides are going to be tweaked as I refine the knowledge I want to share. I think it would be fun to create a video about lettering with these slides and use it as an example of public speaking for my Appearances page. It would be fun to create a 2D virtual avatar for this purpose.

To my surprise, Tom Hart from Sequential Artist Workshop (SAW) took an interest in my lettering talk. I had been posting it in the SAW network for feedback there. I was then invited to give this talk again to the audience within SAW. How cool! I was so flattered and still am. I had a great time presenting. The group there is always good. I think it went really well, and as usual it whets my appetite to do more lectures and appearances about comics.

I think I’ll investigate the local libraries and bookstores, see what’s up. They might not want something so specialized as “just” the comics lettering that goes on in graphic novels, but I could probably invent something more generally comics-related and give that a go.

Some Excellent Lettering Questions
Lettering is an endless rabbit hole of stuff to learn, so it’s not quite feasible to lay everything out in a single talk or blog post. That said, there were some questions from both the Lunch n’ Learn and my SAW Presentation that I found particularly interesting, so I will answer them here as well.

What if you want a sound effect to expand across the gutter between two pages in a spread?
Generally a letterer avoids the bleeds and margins of a page layout, since letters can be lost to the printing crop there and become unreadable. However, artistic license demands exceptions to the rule, and one of those exceptions is large sound effects that spread across two pages, or that cut in from off-page, or etc. In general, keep as much of your word as legible as possible by keeping important letters (such as beginning and end letters) of the word being depicted in the printing safe zone. Sometimes, a letter might need to be wider to cross over the gutter between two pages effectively, too.

If words aren’t fitting into a panel, is it better to edit the text or squish the font size down?
There is never a strictly universal ‘better’ option for lettering, just ‘appropriate’ options for specific cases. In a comic with consistent font size throughout the whole book, smaller text will look odd or even infer something incorrect, such as characters whispering or lowering their voices. If the text is truly necessary, sizing down the art is preferred. Cropping, masking, resizing the width of the letters slightly, and some tracking tomfoolery can all be used to help letters finally snap in place. In general, though, if the editor can pare some text down, that’s much better and easier on the letterer.

What is the industry standard narration bloc treatment?
Unfortunately, industry standards do not exist. If they did, someone would have automated lettering a long time ago with machine learning. Typically narration blocs are squares with left-aligned text, but there’s nothing stopping an enterprising designer from experimenting with blocs of different shapes, sizes, and colors. I would save the really weird and wild lettering experiments for personal projects, though. Clients typically aren’t happy with surprises.

I have an older lecture about setting up one’s first Artist Alley table that I ought to dig up and rejuvenate, too. It was all about small starter projects and when to outsource production, as well as some tips on pricing, copyright, display, and marketing. That was a lecture I gave at San Francisco Comic Con way back in 2015(?) and I never got any feedback from it except from people directly attending. I think getting out there is really important so this looks worth revisiting. The design work isn’t half-bad, either.

Future talks are listed here on my Appearances Page.

Comics Tip

Hand-Lettering vs. Digital Lettering?
This is a false dichotomy. There is no vs.! They don’t fight each other. Digital lettering can look just as beautiful and human as hand-lettering. Both hand-lettering and digital lettering are used to create beautiful, readable comics. Good lettering leads the reader through a comic, and is implemented without suffering for the letterer and anyone who touches the working files of a graphic novel. The process of lettering does not matter; only the results do.

When to use digital lettering:
-Many pages
-Short deadline
-Health issues preventing wrist motion (such as carpal tunnel)
-Small, unimportant sound effects
-Corporate styleguides in place
-Mechanical-looking book title lockups
-‘Live’ text for others to edit if needed
-For works that will be translated into other languages

When to use hand lettering:
-Few pages
-Big, fancy sound effects
-Organic-looking title lockups
-Designing your own custom typography
-In-character hand-writing
-As a meditative exercise
-If it’s just more comfortable than digital
-For fun!

These are starting points for starting your lettering career. Or hobby. It would be nice if more people lettered for fun! Not everything’s a race to monetization.

Generally, lettering fits into a comics layout best when placed first, then has the drawings created around it. However, most publishers will ship flat, unlettered art to letterers, and letterers have to figure out how to slot the letters in to the layout so that all the nice artwork can be appreciated and understood. Here’s a blank comics page and a script, if you want to test out some lettering chops.

Script
PANEL 1
Narration:
On not recognizing someone because they are wearing a mask…

Bear:
Oh! Blueberries.

PANEL 2
Bear:
They’re my favorite.

Bear’s nametag:
NAME
NOT “BEAR”

PANEL 3
Bear:
But I like raspberries too.

Bear (thinking):
Have I offended the raspberry?

PANEL 4
Bear:
Oh no. Maybe I just like ALL of the berries!

H.:
W…Was the cashier a bear?

Care to read more?

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

I Completed a Monthly Challenge!For the month of August, I pledged to 'rough' 48 pages. Roughing a comic means to start drawing in the figures and backgrounds of each panel. Roughs are typically more polished than thumbnails, but they aren't necessarily polished. As I...

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

How to Draw a Whole New WorldOn August 15th, I was halfway through a self-appointed monthly comics challenge to create rough art for a 48-page short fantasy story. I'd been lenient with my goals, imagining that most of my time would be spent designing the environment...

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

A Break from the Webcomic DoldrumsI’ve been working hard on Warlock’d, but not in any capacity ready for public release. There is a lot of editing to be done on it (and has been done on it) and it gets overwhelming on a day-to-day basis. One issue has been that I’m...

Want to chat about this?

SAW Graphic Novel Development Month 3/6

SAW Graphic Novel Development Month 3/6

This month in the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW), I explored making short comics as practice for the final pages in my graphic novel, Warlock’d. This comic in particular was completed for a Graphic Novel challenge hosted by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). My entry didn’t go anywhere, but a couple of my peers were recognized for their excellent work, and they have allowed me to re-share their entries as well as links to their respective portfolios.

 

A two-page comic spread of teal, orange, and pink. In the first panel, Jade looks at a delicious mango hanging over head. In panel two, she climbs up a tree that spreads all the way across both pages. Then she sits in the branch and plucks the mango from the canopy. Panels 3-5 are devoted to peeling the delicious mango. The final panel depicts Jade enjoying her well-earned prize.

This memoir spread by Jade Vaughn, an Austin-based comics artist, depicts an exquisitely simple moment. I liked being able to experience the mango alongside Jade, after traveling up the tree alongside her. The layout has cinematic qualities and the color scheme is just juicy, there’s no other word for it. I can’t wait to see what other magical comics work Jade has in store!

 

Two-page horror comic by Suzanne Fiore Murata. It is drawn in grungy greens with red lettering on aged paper. Panel one is a bloody red splotch with narration written in it:

I was also pleasantly surprised to see Suzanne Fiore Murata’s horror-themed entry get a nod. Media for small kids frequently gets watered down by well-meaning adults, but comics are one of the safest spaces to experience fear and work through complicated feelings. I was already a fan of Suzanne’s work prior to this conference, so I loved that the judges agreed with me on the quality of her craft. Just love the textures, the mood, the lettering!! Very, very good.

 

Takeaways
The SCBWI Illustrator’s Day (Graphic Novel edition) was a nice nod towards graphic novels. Within SCBWI I’ve found it hard to find resources or events that welcome graphic novels, rather than prose books or picture books. That said, there was an implication that only people who were spotlit in the event should submit to the guest agents or publishers. Their tastes were very different from what I want to create, or where my art style is currently residing. I also would not feel great being a risky option for them to consider without having at least one complete graphic novel under my belt. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing success on a smaller scale first.

By far the most helpful feedback on this comic page came from my independent writing group, with a layout adjustment that I feel improved the clarity of the page. With regards to the SAW graphic novel intensive, this exercise did confirm that I want more technical feedback, both in volume and in intensity. However, it’s not fair of me to demand that of anyone in general within the network. It’s home to many people who are making comics as self-expression or who aren’t as keen on technique, for any number of valid reasons. I have also been enjoying it as more of an accountability/socializing thing. That said, I’m more likely to ask some of the friends I’ve made for critique over expecting anything too in-depth from my posts to the SAW course feed.

I’m also excited about getting to start on the final drawings and lines of Warlock’d in 2022, maybe even as early as December! Every time I work on something with lineart and coloring it feels good and natural, even though I still have some things to learn about the art.

Comics Tip

Art Contests, and When to Enter Them
Art contests are either opportunities to mingle with the art community at large, or straight-up scams. At their best, friendships are forged and skills are assessed. At their worst, institutions prey on amateur and entry-level creatives by offering one prize while soliciting as many entries as possible.

The key factors to consider when looking at an art contest are:

How will the art be used?
Is the institution going to use the submissions for profit? Logo design contests in particular are notorious about this. Why should a business get to use a logo as their trademarked identity for perpetuity if their prize is only a one-time prize payout? Logos and brand identity are worth a lot of money, more than most contests offer. If a business is going play fast and loose with its own identity, that’s not a good sign for both present and future professional involvement.

Is copyright retained by the entrant?
Some contests require entrants to forsake copyright on their work upon entry, causing all entries to become property of the contest holder. Do not do this! The work you create for a contest should remain yours upon conclusion of the contest, even (and especially) if it’s not chosen as the winner. No prize is worth forfeiting copyright upfront over.

Would I make this art anyway?
When looking at a contest, if it’s something I’d like to make outside of a contest, I’ll usually go for it. The contest gives a firm deadline that can be great motivation for just getting something done, even if it’s small.

In this instance of SCBWI’s memoir challenge, I needed more short comics as practice, the entries weren’t going to be used for any business enterprise, and I would retain my copyright after the event wrapped up. My chosen childhood memory may have been a little too weird or convoluted for this audience, but at least it’s an entry in my portfolio from which I can learn and move on.

…And yes, the depicted outfit in my comic was real. I’m sure that was the burning question on everyone’s mind!

Bless you, The 80’s. Never change.

Care to read more?

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

I Completed a Monthly Challenge!For the month of August, I pledged to 'rough' 48 pages. Roughing a comic means to start drawing in the figures and backgrounds of each panel. Roughs are typically more polished than thumbnails, but they aren't necessarily polished. As I...

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

How to Draw a Whole New WorldOn August 15th, I was halfway through a self-appointed monthly comics challenge to create rough art for a 48-page short fantasy story. I'd been lenient with my goals, imagining that most of my time would be spent designing the environment...

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

A Break from the Webcomic DoldrumsI’ve been working hard on Warlock’d, but not in any capacity ready for public release. There is a lot of editing to be done on it (and has been done on it) and it gets overwhelming on a day-to-day basis. One issue has been that I’m...

Want to chat about this?

SAW Graphic Novel Development Month 2/6

SAW Graphic Novel Development Month 2/6

Digital art of a character design based off of the medieval cynocephalus, or dog-headed man. (No relation to Dav Pilkey). The men are both dressed in fine furs with felt hats and wear snarls on their muzzled faces. The only difference between the two is that one man is entirely wolflike, fur and all, while the other man has no fur on their face, leading to a very bald complexion.

A Tale of Cynocephali
In the six-month Sequential Arts Workshop (SAW) graphic novel intensive, I’ve been getting meaningful work done on my thumbnails and script. Soon, I will have a complete thumbnailed version of the graphic novel.

As for the cynocephali (or medieval dog-headed men) above, that represents a character redesign challenge I had while revisiting the fourth or fifth draft of my script. The first iteration of this character, named Canicula, is represented by the gray wolfish man. Early feedback indicated that sure, wolf heads are cool, but Canicula looked like he was a werewolf form of Pierre, one of the comic’s deuteragonists!

Hated to admit it but I can sort of see how Canicula initially looked like a wolfy Pierre.

So, I dug deep into Wikipedia for more visual reference. 12th century images of cynocephali are quite rare online, or I simply haven’t found them yet. I landed on this example of a 17th century depiction of Saint Christopher as a cynocephalus from Russia and couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Kermira, Cappadocia St Christopher depicted with the head of a dog. From the 5th century on, it was widely believed in Byzantium that the saint was one of the mythic dog-heads, a barbarian race without the gift of human speech. Nevertheless his depiction as a dog-head had not been the dominant in the Byzantine art, since the Byzantine Church frowned upon the linking of one of its saints with the cynocephali. In the post-Byzantine art, though, especially from the 17th c. onwards, the Orthodox artists several times paint the Saint as a dog-head. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s something quite arresting about the skin tone, the ears, and the haircut on this artwork. I couldn’t put my finger on it….

Screenshot of Mok Swagger, a character from an ill-fated animated movie called Rock n' Rule. He has excessive eyebrows, lips, and teeth, and he's holding some kind of vaporwave stick. He looks an awful lot like a cynocephalus, with the pointy ears, big curved nose, and ridiculous lips.I don't know. Ask Nelvana.“My name is…Moknicula Swaggercephalus.”

Ah. Okay. Well. This will be my homage to Nelvana’s ill-fated attempt at adult animation, then! Exactly the right level of uncanny valley.

Character redesign: Complete! For now, anyway.

In terms of technical studies I’ve also been working my way through the facial expressions section in Anatomy for Sculptors.

Comics Tip

Managing a Team of One
As I’m independently producing a graphic novel, I’ve come to realize I am doing 4-5 separate jobs, all at once. Just being one person, it might seem easy to keep myself organized, but no, of course not. My brain goes in 4-5 different directions at once. I have to reign myself in and focus on one part of the graphic novel at a time. Above all, writing comes first. Many graphic novelists (and, er, non-graphic novelists…so… novelists) turn to notecards and sticky notes to keep their plots under control. While I adore tactile crafting and drawing whenever possible, I turned to a digital solution.

Trello.com is a free notecard-like sorting system for keeping track of tasks. It accomplishes the one simple thing that I want it to do: Make digital cards that are editable, legible, and can be swapped around. I can access my cards from anywhere. They are also share-able for feedback and if I really wanted, I could invite collaborators.

Screen Shot of a Trello board. It has several columns, including to-do lists, lettering, thumbnailing, and the like. The background is a snowy mountain lake.

I set up my columns to reflect each ‘job’ I have to do in order to complete my graphic novel: Conceptualized, Scripted, Thumbnailed, Lettered, Roughed, Inked, Colored, Polished. Right now I’m very focused on bringing everything into the ‘Thumbnailed’ stage. At the time of writing this I have Act 1 thumbnailed, most of Act 2 thumbnailed, and bits of Act 3 thumbnailed. Trello lets me hop around like a time traveler so I can resolve the scenes I am most interested in first.

If you’re interested in giving Trello a try, and haven’t been traumatized by it yet in a tech workplace, it’s free to use here.

Care to read more?

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

I Completed a Monthly Challenge!For the month of August, I pledged to 'rough' 48 pages. Roughing a comic means to start drawing in the figures and backgrounds of each panel. Roughs are typically more polished than thumbnails, but they aren't necessarily polished. As I...

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

How to Draw a Whole New WorldOn August 15th, I was halfway through a self-appointed monthly comics challenge to create rough art for a 48-page short fantasy story. I'd been lenient with my goals, imagining that most of my time would be spent designing the environment...

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

A Break from the Webcomic DoldrumsI’ve been working hard on Warlock’d, but not in any capacity ready for public release. There is a lot of editing to be done on it (and has been done on it) and it gets overwhelming on a day-to-day basis. One issue has been that I’m...

Want to chat about this?