Thursday, April 16, 2009


There's a German word, Koolstüff, which oddly enough means "cool stuff."* It's a good internet word, because it describes a common goal of people looking for entertainment on the web. They want to find, and be entertained, by koolstüff.

Good webcomics are koolstüff for the mind: mental entertainment. Good webcomic t-shirts are physical koolstüff: entertainment accessories.

Switching focus from mental to physical koolstüff can feel negative. A person who has just enjoyed the latest episode of your comic is more prepared to enjoy another webcomic than to go on a shopping spree. Gimmicks like flashing ads resembling Snoopy's doghouse at Christmas may lure visitors into your store, but they do little to assist them in making a mental shift in goals, and that means their staying power is low.

A better formula might be for the visitor's experience on your site might be:

  • Present the mental koolstüff (the comic)
  • Present mental koolstüff qualities of your store by saturating its path, design and images of the store so that the journey does not require a shift from enjoyment to critical thinking, avoiding a major negative vibe
  • Separate the parts of your store that disrupt enjoyment (size charts, pricing, shipping) by moving it to a segregated area limited to perhaps 1/6 of a store page's area. That's bummer stuff. Keep it handy, but decontaminate the koolstüff.
  • Now a visitor can enjoy the merchandise without breaking the spell. Unless your stuff is bad, in which case, we'll be needing a column on merchandise design, and someone experienced enough to write one.

Mental koolstüff (comic) > Mental koolstüff (other pages including store) > Perception of physical koolstüff as having high mental koolstüff qualities

This goes back to an old saying from the world of sales: Sell the sizzle, not the steak. Being an enthusiast of steaks but not so much of cooking them, I still struggle with the exact meaning of this advice, but I'm pretty sure they are saying to emphasize the mental koolstüff of the steak over the physical.

A cognitive shift  is a major shift in mental states, like one experiences after swallowing psychedelic mushrooms. Switching interest from mental to physical koolstüff is a much less significant alteration of brain functioning, but in general, the less you ask your audience to make mental adjustments, the more they'll remain content.

Forcing mental adjustments inflicts "drag" on readers. The vibe they receive from the site becomes less pleasant.

There's more drag with buying a t-shirt than one might guess: locating the credit card last seen on the coffee table; figuring out sizing used by this particular vendor's system; delayed gratification; guilt if funds are tight; anxiety about making a decision; recalling your PayPal password; fear of getting ripped off; and delay in reaching the next comic on the reading list.

Two practices are applicable to the webcomic store. I'll just touch on Design Optimization, since there is lots of source material online, then I'll talk about the role of koolstüff.

Design optimization for reader access is becoming a big industry. It involves making site design choices that assist and encourage the reader's ability to move, interact and learn. Concepts like navigation simplicity, breadcrumbs for easier backtracking (e.g. seeing HOME>Books>Medical Books>Medical History Books on your page, all linked), font choices, and even studying what draws the eye are involved.

Make the pleasures readers find in the comic extend into other places on the site. Start by signaling that koolstüff awaits in these areas. A button labeled LINKS scores high for clarity but low for koolstüff, so identifying the mechanisms of invitation is important. Using those mechanisms to invite people inside involves either altering them to include koolstüff content or positioning the "koolstüff ahead" sign in close proximity.

An example: A comic about a guy stuck on a desert island with a palm tree and a parrot. Certain items may come to mind as likely icons of the comic: a coconut, the parrot, the treasure chest he can't spend, the skull he found, the stupid hat he made out of seaweed. These are mostly small items, and can be simplified, making icons to either replace traditional buttons or decorate them. We are definitely moving away from the clean look some people prefer for their page, but we've raised the volume of the "koolstüff ahead" message.**

Along with making your navigational tools more evocative, or instead of it, you can include tantalizing imagery of what awaits on the destination page. If koolstüff has a motto, it's "Keep the buzz going." Not hype or intoxication, but the happy mental state.

Here's a condensed version of what I wrote next:

  • turn iconic items into iconic messages. The friendly parrot from the comic becoming a handy guide on what to see next, perhaps
  • use props from your comic in your store
  • use appropriate live models. Humans are good, so are guinea pigs and Great Horned Owls. Consider photographing them in appropriate settings that evoke your comic
  • use thumbnails of the most compelling parts of your merchandise images to arouse interest
  • avoid scrolling and page hopping. Use collapsible text, small icons and other tools.
  • make the koolstüff zone most of you page, and make simple, optimized corners for technical stuff like sizing and anything else important but boring
  • the comic and store are your most important pages if you are a serious webcomicker. Make the journey from one to the other as seamless as possible. Unite them with common imagery -- all the good koolstüff buzz images and none of the "Do Not Wash Shirts in Hit Water" bummer

Don't confuse koolstüff with cool. Cool is done to death every day in all media. We all know the images of the cool lifestyle, and it usually involves trying to impress other people.*** Koolstüff is all about the mental relationship between a person and the things on a site. We go to a lot of work to connect comics to their audiences. We try to help form a relationship bond, and helping a visitor hold that bond from entrance to exit is vital. Make it easy for readers to extend their involvement without harshing their buzz, and everyone benefits.


*Actually, no. I made the word up.

**To help make the koolstüff concept easy to understand, I'm not stopping to consider some possible negative tradeoffs, especially on clean, simple, standardized design. I'm not unaware of these issues. I simply feel that discussing them amidst an introduction to koolstüff could be distracting, and that we can devote entire columns to them as needed. I do consider them important.

***Ironically, that doesn't sound cool, does it?

Note: I used a lot of drug lingo in this column. I don't actually use recreational drugs, but you are forgiven for wondering. At one point this piece was three times longer, and I'm ready to sign up. I mean, developing and writing this was brutal, and maybe 1000, possibly 2000 people will see it. If that doesn't call for an arm full of horse, I don't know what does.