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What Spider-Man Can Teach Us About Interface Design, Part 1

It probably looks like we’ve got comic books on the brain this week. And maybe we do. After all, we work in midtown Manhattan and you can’t swing a dead cat here without hitting some piece of WATCHMEN promo. But comic books and web design are intimately connected. Both marry pictures and text. Both are Read more

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It probably looks like we’ve got comic books on the brain this week. And maybe we do. After all, we work in midtown Manhattan and you can’t swing a dead cat here without hitting some piece of WATCHMEN promo.

But comic books and web design are intimately connected. Both marry pictures and text. Both are highly involved with how the user interacts with the assets presented. And both present unique opportunities to communicate in manners not possible in any other medium. Maybe that’s why Google commissioned Scott McCloud to design a comic book for them when they launched Chrome.

I spent over a decade in the comic book industry and as I look back at those experiences, I often recall lessons that are applicable in the interactive space. (I’m not alone in this. Carl Potts regularly talks about this stuff on his blog). One example of this was the creation of the “special cover” phenomenon that happened in the early ‘90s in the comic book business. If you were a fan during those times, you know what I’m talking about. Holograms, poly-bagged trading cards, “chromium covers and more were commonplace. In my position as Director of Marketing at Marvel Comics, I was at ground zero of the “gimmick cover craze” (we didn’t invent the first “special covers” at Marvel but we certainly popularized the phenomenon). How was this trend created and what can it teach us about digital design?

Like all of the best product innovations, the trend started out as an honest attempt at customer service. In 1990, Marvel launched SPIDER-MAN #1, a monthly ongoing title written and drawn by industry superstar, Todd McFarlane. Marvel’s VP of Direct Sales, Carol Kalish knew that this would be a huge release and wanted to create a way for her customers, hobby market retailers, to take full advantage of this. She successfully campaigned for a second, “direct market edition” of the comic book that would not be available anywhere except for comic book shops.

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This edition was only differentiated from the regular edition by the change in background color and the use of a special “fifth color ink” (silver in this case). It was a resounding success and eventually the comic would go through several more printings (including gold and platinum editions). As Apple would learn later on with its multicolored iPod offerings, it pays to keep the early adapters happy.

It’s important to note here, that there was no change in the editorial content. Merely, a tweaking of the packaging and design (and no increase in price, either).  But almost twenty years ago, the idea of “special collector’s editions” was still relatively new and the variant issues became a major hit.

The success of these variant editions spurred a lot of debate in the Marvel offices. Were they merely by-products of McFarlane’s immense popularity? Or the popularity of the Spider-Man character? Just how much of an impact had a change in packaging had on the end consumer?
After prolonged discussion, Carol tasked her team with two missions:
1)    Look for another opportunity to test the idea of tweaking package design using the fifth ink technology.
2)    Create a high-end version of SPIDER-MAN #1 as a “Thank You” to comic book storeowners.

Fortuitously, the Sales department at Marvel was located next to the Manufacturing and Production department. Even before this assignment was given to the Sales team, the two departments had enjoyed daily interaction and a friendly working partnership. Without the barriers between developers and sales and marketing that exist in most intellectual property companies an opportunity existed for ideas to flow freely.

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Task #1 was easier to complete than task #2. Simple ink changes were very easy to implement and we quickly identified a pivotal issue of the HULK that might be ideal for testing (On a side note, the HULK was a sales dog at the time selling barely 1/10th of SPIDER-MAN’s circulation figures). We avoided using metallic ink so it wouldn’t look like we were merely aping the SPIDER-MAN variant covers (another important lesson for web designers. There’s nothing wrong with replicating functionality but you have to make the execution unique). Instead, we went for green Day-glo ink that highlighted the distinctive artwork that artist Dale Keown had created for the cover. The result was an increase in sales of over 300% and another set of multiple printings.

We had brainstormed a feature change in our core product (the SPIDER-MAN variants), analyzed metrics to measure market success (our comic book sales figures) and tested another, similar feature change (the HULK cover). We now knew that this new design element was something our end users would respond too.

But how could we continue to implement this change in a way that would complement our diverse information/intellectual property offerings? How could we create a premium version of our content? And how could we do it without the incredibly compelling content of our initial releases (McFarlane and Keown’s artwork)? The answers to these questions and more in our next blog post!

(You didn’t think a comic book guy would miss out a chance to say “To Be Continued”, did you?)

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