Several months ago DC and Comixology rolled out a day-and-date program for their comic books. I was, initially at least, really excited for the development and I was ready to leave paper-based comic books in the past. The Comixology app was upgraded and I was ready to rock and roll with the new system. I had my Comixology app all up-to-date, called DC Comics running on my iPad.
The app was pretty to see at first, and as I used it I quickly found my initial pleasure quickly evaporating before my eyes. The first hit was the frequent app jettisoning. In the iOS Operating System when an application does something unplanned, illegal, or encounters some other fault on the platform it will crash, pushing the user back to the app selection interface. This fault is called a jettison, and I learned that fact from another iOS app that was chock-full of these jettisons. Beyond the functional failures of the app lie all the design issues with the user experience that I have a problem with.
I spent a long time comparing the old way I used to get comics to what the Comixology app would suggest is the new way. In the old way, with paper comics I would head out on Wednesday afternoon to the local comicbook store where my pull list was on-file there, after walking in the staff would greet me and get my pre-compiled list of comic books. I would then be able to sort through my pile, but it was almost always just a silly formality and so I would walk up with my pile of comics and the checkout would mostly just be the staff pressing a button, all my books on my list getting tallied up and then a total. I’d pay, then take my comics to lunch with Scott and we’d read and eat and talk about what DC or Marvel were up to. All in all, it worked out very well.
For the past few years, ever since I bought my first iPod Touch I considered how awesome it would be to have a device much bigger than the touch but nearly as thin, and I called it the iPod Touch XL. On this device I could read my comics on the display. Years rolled on by and Apple had introduced the iPad. I was in line that April morning when they had it for sale and I bought my iPad without any hesitation. I finally had the device that I wanted all along.
Zoom forward to a few weeks ago, after Comixology released “DC Comics” updated app, featuring the new art for DC’s “New 52” program. I was so happy, at least at first, and I moved forward. I didn’t renew my club card at my local comic book shop, and I stopped buying paper comics there. I was moving to the digital world. I opened up the DC app, and after several jettisons later I had connected my Comixology store username to the app and connected my Apple ID to the app as well. Apple takes a 30% cut of all in-app sales and the sales themselves are mediated through the App Store. So I browsed through the DC Comics app and started to pick out a host of Issue #1’s for titles I knew I would likely enjoy. I knew I wanted “New Guardians” along with Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Superman, Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superboy, Batman and Robin, Detective Comics, Justice League and Justice League International. I also noticed that DC was going to publish a new series based on the Red Lantern component of the Green Lantern universe and that was another thing that attracted my eye. So I started to buy comics in-app. It was certainly a smooth process, tap on the comic image that I wanted, then tap to purchase, enter in my Apple ID and the app would begin to download the comic book I wanted. Using the Comixology app to actually read the comics was never a problem for me. I quite enjoy the frame-by-frame lead-through embedded in the comic books that I download, but right after that I started noticing issues.
The problems were annoying and frustrating. The apps instability was the first thing I noticed. While paging through a Superman comic book the app would jettison. This was merely an inconvenience because I could restart the app and pick up where I left off. But then I started to notice some real problems. I would read my comics while on the treadmill at the gym, and I’d use the gym’s free wifi. As I stood there walking away on the treadmill I tapped in vain on the “DC Comics” Comixology app looking for “New Guardians #1” because I knew from earlier in that day that DC had released it, because I saw it on the shelf at the local comic book store. While I stopped buying, Scott did not, so every Wednesday I can see what books should be in the “DC Comics” app around 2pm later that day. It took me half and hour to find the “New Guardians #1” issue. The way that the app is organized, you have your comics and you have “The Store”. This is a structure that I’m comfortable with, however the way it’s designed, it doesn’t live up to even it’s own structure. For each comic book that I wanted to read, I plowed manually through the app and set alarms, as the “set alert” button was on each titles purchase screen. This button does nothing.
So my frustration comes from what I think the app should do and what the app fails to do. As I described to Scott earlier tonight, Comixology went miles to produce a shiny app that looks great. All I want is for them to give me just 5 more inches, they’ve gone miles, why not just a little touch more? I started to compare the app to the local comic book store. At the store I had a pull-list, a pile of comics were waiting for me to pick up, all I had to do was plunk down payment and that would be that. The app doesn’t tell me when a new edition of one of my comics is available, as that “set alert” button DOES NOTHING. So when I start the DC Comics app I have to slog through the store trying to find the issues I want, and trying to keep in mind what issues I own and what issues are unbought and whether or not I still want to read that particular comic book. Now along with this irritating app comes at the same time several comics from DC where the quality has gone down the toilet. I tried a lot of comics and found that I didn’t like many of them, Batwoman and Batgirl were both irritating, spending more time being stupid than being the female version of Batman. I also really don’t like the new Robin, which is Batman’s apparent son Damien Wayne. Yeah I understand the story, but I don’t like the character. So I got angry. Angry at the app because I couldn’t easily get the comics I wanted, angry that the “Alert” button was meaningless and angry at DC for selling me crap.
I stopped buying comics in paper at the local comic book store. I have also not returned to the DC Comics app. I have comics that I bought that are unread in that app and I don’t really care one way or another. Perhaps on some quiet snowy day I’ll slog through the damn thing and polish what I bought off. Mostly I’m dissapointed and sad. I don’t think what I had in mind is too difficult to pull off in iOS and the fact that Comixology so deeply overhauled their entire comic book app on iOS, and left such functionality out really boggles my mind.
So what would I want to see? Scott asked this of me after I was done railing against the Comixology app. I don’t want paper comic books, I want virtual ones on my iPad. I know that for sure. What I want is to open up the DC Comics app on any given Wednesday around 3pm or so and be presented with a list of all the comic books that I am following, all listed nicely with a checkbox next to each that is by default on, and a nice big friendly button marked “Purchase Comics”. I tap the button, enter in my Apple ID password and the app automatically downloads all the comics I want to read. I’d also want the app to link these purchases serially so when I’m done reading Green Lantern, the next one up, say Detective Comics is the next, ready to read with a tap of a button. I want to be able to start the DC Comics app, start with one comic book and then tap my way through my entire comics purchase serially. So what is it that I’m after?
- I’d like to be able to define a pull-list in the DC Comics app.
- I’d like the “Alert Me” button removed, or better yet, HAVE IT DO SOMETHING and throw notifications through Notification Center “DC Comics – Superman #3 is now available.”
- I’d like it more, if after I start the app, that it presents me with a list of comics that I haven’t bought yet, but own their predecessors with a clear way to “turn them on” or “turn them off” and buy them in one single transaction.
- I’d like to see “My Comics” extended with links into “The Store” so that when I tap on “Adventure Comics” that the app has enough wits to show me all the issues of that title that I haven’t bought. I want to continue reading the stories, and this is the most convenient way to my mind on how to arrange that.
What I don’t want to do is slog my ass through “The Store” searching in vain in the “Day and Date Release” comics list which never really has the comics I’m looking for. Instead I have to either search on the title explicitly or I have to search for the “New 52” story arc section and rifle through that section. It’s really quite an unpleasant experience to be swiping through lists of comics you don’t care about only to discover that the comic book you really really wanted, in this case, “New Guardians #1” was released two weeks ago and you never knew because it wasn’t in the “Day and Date” release list. You sizzle when you go to “The Store” and verify that “Alert Me” is indeed on, and then you get even more angry when you realize that the stupid thing doesn’t do anything at all. It doesn’t alert anyone. It doesn’t fire off Notifications, it doesn’t do anything but toggle on and toggle off.
But I’m not an iOS Developer and I don’t work for Comixology. I’m just one lonely angry customer with a list of ideas and I don’t think my tiny angry voice amounts to very much in the great analysis when it’s all tallied up. Comixology will continue to sell comic books with their Jettison-a-palooza app with all it’s do nothing options and intentionally labyrinthine store that forces you to swipe past comic books you will never ever buy because you have absolutely zero interest. I will never buy Batwing. I don’t care for Bats in Africa. Moving on…
And that’s what drives me the most crazy. It’s like this great app was only half-designed. That there are entire sections that feel like it should be in there. Functionality that when you discover it’s absence you crinkle up your eyes and wonder “What the hell were they thinking?” To go so far, to create such a slick app and then leave the most consumer-friendly (and most comic-book-store analogue) features totally absent boggles the mind. The lack of all of these features seems terribly absurd, and of course begs the thought that if it’s so half-baked, perhaps it’s designed to fail. Designed to piss people off so much, to irritate them so thuroughly that they’d rather slog their behinds back to their local comic book store and set up those pull lists again and go back to hauling dead trees around.
So I don’t use the app. I complained on Twitter, mostly as an explanation of why I’m leaving comic books for good. I am no longer really a customer, I used to be, I so much want to be, but I don’t want to go to my local comic book shop anymore, and I don’t want to use DC Comics anymore because it’s so unhelpful. I’ve got money and I might have interest and what really grinds my gears is that I’m fine with 90% of the app beyond the parts I really don’t like. The things that irritate me upset me enough to sour the entire experience. I’m so angry at wasting time hunting and pecking for comic books that I have blown out time I could have spent ACTUALLY READING THEM with trying to navigate through a store I don’t really like. And the biggest rub of all? What I ask out of Comixology and the DC Comics app in particular doesn’t strike me as being a monumentally difficult thing to arrange. The app knows I have a Comixology account, it knows I have an Apple ID. I have to assume there is room in iCloud for apps to store arrays of data. Why not enable the customer to create pull-lists and then adjust the app so it’s as helpful as Alfred? Batman would never put up with this crap.
So this entire blog post is half me railing against technology that has failed me and a response to someone on Twitter who wants to know why I’m leaving comic books. I could put up with junky content from DC in hopes that it gets better, but I really can’t put up with that app. That’s really what it comes down to. Such a shame. What would change my tune?
Alfred. He would change my tune. Alfred in DC Comics app. That’s really all there is to it.