Comic books, for the most part, are not interactive mediums. Usually, reading them is just a series of one-sided actions and reactions: you read a comic book, and you respond emotionally to its static contents. The comic remains unmoved by your actions; it never responds to anything in your circumstance. There are occasional exceptions to this, however: if you send the publisher fan mail, and it is published, that may arguably be an interaction. You read the comic, respond with mail, and the writer or editor publishes your letter and a response. Of course, this doesn’t actually effect the body of the comic, only the back pages and extras.

A more concrete example of interactivity occurs when a comic writer designs their story around it: famously in 1988, Jason Todd, the Robin at the time to Batman, was put in a life-or-death situation, and DC decided to leave his fate up to a fan vote. You would call one number to save his life; call the other to let the Joker kill him. DC had expected fans to save Jason. They’d planned more stories around him, and didn’t imagine that fans could be so cold-blooded. Instead, the fans narrowly decided to let him die, and the publisher decided to go through with the fans’ decision. They couldn’t use their planned stories, and this death had negative repercussions to the Batman character and comic for years thereafter.

You read the comic book, you voted, and the comic’s story changed based on the results of that vote. That’s an interaction.

More precisely, interaction is a back and forth between two or more things, or, in the words of Chris Crawford, “a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak.” 1 Interactivity can then be subdivided into digital and physical interactions. But where do we draw the line between these two categories? What is physical interaction? Where should we put edge cases, like augmented realities and check-in spaces?

In my opinion, there isn’t a need to make these kinds of interactions a strict categorization. Things can exist on a continuum: digital, physical, or somewhere in between. Interactions are more digital when they primarily involve objects that are intangible; they are more physical when they have physical or tactile components. Using a theremin is more of a digital phenomena than playing an electric guitar, but they are both electronic instruments. Both are considerably more physical than playing music on a digital soundboard.

This is somewhat akin to how Crawford asserts that interaction itself can be measured in degrees and on a continuum.2 Everything is shades of grey.

A good interaction can be found when the interaction uses intuitive controls and gives you proper feedback for your actions. This may mean the affordances are natural to what a user already knows: for instance, a Wacom pen tablet’s controls are in line with how people use non-digital writing utensils. You press down for more pressure; write at an angle to change the shape of your line.

Sometimes, a design can be successful even if it is completely out of sync with what one knows: returning to the theremin, the control scheme is completely out of line with what a typical person knows about playing music. However, the music sounds completely otherworldly, so the otherworldly control scheme is in line with expectations. Additionally, feedback is real time and can be instantly be heard, it is still successful at helping people play music. It may be poor interaction, on some level, but a good design.

Occasionally, good design makes good use of affordances, but they are not interactive and give no feedback. A good example of this are real-time bus and subway countdown estimates. You don’t interact with them in any way; your actions do not affect the subway countdown. However, they’re great design by using your pre-existing expectations about subway timetables and signs.

Like the theremin, many designers today excel at the feedback portion, but fail at using existing affordances. In a long rant3, Bret Victor rails against the vision of the future that is screen-based– this fails to make use of thousands of years of developing physical affordances. An ideal interaction makes use of both existing affordances and also delivers feedback for your actions.

  1. Crawford, Chris. The Art of Interactive Design: A Euphonious and Illuminating Guide to Building Successful Software, June 2002. San Francisco: No Starch, 2002. pp 3.

  2. Crawford, The Art of Interactive Design, pp 6.

  3. Victor, Bret. A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design, November 2011.