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What do Batman and UX have in common?

You’d be surprised what you can learn from reading Batman.

Eric F 11 July 2016

Batman and comic books

If you do user experience design (UX) you need to read Batman. Well, to be more specific you need to read comics. To be honest Judge Dredd is my real favourite, but it’s rare to get to write a blog about him. But that’s enough about Judge Dredd or Batman. Let’s talk about comics.

Comics tell stories

Well, this is obvious. But for UXer's the interesting part is the synthesis of the visual and the written into a narrative that moves the reader along. In comics, narrative-flows run left to right, up and down and in all directions. Skilled artists lead the readers through the narrative using appropriate devices that support the story.

In traditional (western) comic book layout the conventions of reading left to right apply. But creative page layout can direct readers in any direction. The only requirement for readers is it doesn't get in the way of the story. In the same way, creative flourishes should never get in the way of user tasks.

Narrative-flows and UX

In UX and CX, or whatever you may call it, the same things must happen. From conversion funnels to reading information, the UX designer must guide users to complete tasks. Perhaps this is why websites rated as AA and AAA by Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are seen as creative deserts, a brutalist approach to designing interaction.

UX patterns represent homogeneous user-journey conventions. These are important factors in designing successful user journeys. Take the example of the pull down to refresh, or the hamburger menu icon. Both emerged organically. Both have enjoyed widespread adoption. At first these are creative solutions for a narrative problem, they are deviations. But with adoption they soon become part of the common lexicon.

In many ways the mechanics of comic book narrative is analogous to UX design.

This is illustrated in Scott McClure’s 1993 ‘Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art'. Here he examines the mechanics of comic book storytelling with topics very familiar to UX designers:

  • Visual iconography and its effects
  • Closure, reader participation between the panels
  • Word-picture dynamics
  • Time and motion
  • The psychology of line styles and colour
  • Comics and the artistic process

Comics present new ideas

Comics suffer a ‘dumb’ image. Yet to keep readership up week in and week out they must present new ideas in imaginative and engaging ways. Readers vote with their wallet, if they don’t like what they see they won’t buy the next issue. Usage and engagement is the lifeblood of any digital service. Like comics, UX must give its users delight (be it utility or social fun) and it must engage.

In the 80s I grew up on a steady diet of 2000AD, Crisis and Deadline. These presented ideas about the future and how people would interact and behave in a future society. Scarily a lot of the tongue-in-cheek predictions have come through in one form or another.

In app terms it’s the equivalent of knowing what Snapchat is. Chances are if you’re in your mid- to late-twenties or above you have a vague idea of what it’s all about. It has a confusing interface, messages are temporary and it’s all a bit busy. It’s is also incredibly popular and hugely addictive.

So how do you onboard users to new concepts in human communications? Charm works well and that’s where intelligent use of micro interactions come to the fore. You also tell stories. And how better to introduce a picture of an alien world or concept than to show it and live it.

Micro interactions are the nectar of good user experience — purposeful, subtle and full of character, they deliver with personality.

The fun in UX

Comics are fun, something the recent Batman/Superman movies appear to have forgotten. Ultimately it’s about a fun ride we all want to take. UX design can be the same but more often than not it results in a joyless trudge, hello AA and AAA sites. Personally, I’d like to see more personality in apps and websites. The best examples are sites that go about their business but interact with personality and subtlety.

Comics are bombastic by nature. UX should be true to its nature and be an invisible concierge to users’ needs. In the best comics it’s a total immersion on behalf of the reader in the story. The reader willingly grants licence to suspend their disbelief and be lead through far-fetched scenarios. Successful UX must achieve something similar, leading users through tasks to their end goal while informing them of the narrative with personality and a light touch.

So if you’re a UX designer do yourself a favour and go out and buy a few comics and see how it’s done. A few recommendations Watchmen, V for Vendetta or Maus. And of course, Judge Dredd.

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