Linden Lab announced that it has signed on interactive design agency, Big Spaceship, as a key part of its strategy to rework the user-experience, user-interface and signup system for Second Life. The project has been dubbed the UX (User eXperience) project. Big Spaceship, in fact, has apparently been onboard with the Lab for some little while now -- we're only really just hearing about it.
We had the opportunity to steal a bit of time with Benjamin Linden (otherwise known as Ben Glenn) who is a Director on Linden Lab's User Experience team and talk to him about Big Spaceship's involvement. Ben is primarily responsible for the user interface design of the Second Life viewer. Along the way we learned a lot about the Lab's reasoning behind this project, the goals they were shooting towards, and how they intended to achieve them.
Obviously, the first thing we wanted to know was why the Lab took this task to an outside group.
"Focus on solutions that could be realistically achieved on a one-year time horizon"
'We felt that there would be benefit in having fresh eyes approach the problem from a new perspective,' Ben told us. There's a lot of material to work on and that needs tuning, redesign and integration for consistency so, 'We determined that it would be most efficient to work with an outside firm for a design project of this breadth and complexity. This way Lindens can stay focused on critical internal initiatives.'
'The goal is to improve the user experience for all Residents. We hope this project will help new Residents as they start out in Second Life, as well as provide an improved experienced for existing Residents and make it easier to find relevant content and experiences in Second Life' says Ben, which seems like a pretty tall (and time-consuming) order.
Keeping it real
That seems like a whole lot of scope, and seems like the sort of thing that could run on for much of forever. The Lab plans to keep things under control and achievable, however. 'We asked Big Spaceship to focus on solutions that could be realistically achieved on a one-year time horizon. Our plan is to reduce or eliminate friction points in the new user experience (simplify the sign-up process and the Viewer UI).'
Certainly there are enough of those friction points that need to be addressed. Second Life attracts a fair bit of flak for its interface. Oddly, much of that comes from people who've never used it, and we've certainly seen worse virtual environment interfaces out there. Actually the Second Life user interface isn't that bad for first timers, who can be led through learning the basics in about the same amount of time as most MMOG and virtual environment UIs.
Where it seems to fall down is moving on from that point. When you've learned enough to tackle more complex tasks, and find obstacles rather than flows.
Additionally recent changes like the viewer's Communicate interface acted to draw people's attention away from the world and either distracted or obscured it.
"Simplifying the UI doesn't mean dumbing it down, it means making it smarter"
The world is the centerpiece
'The primary goal is to streamline and simplify the top-level UI,' Ben told us, 'We plan to make it much easier for Residents to manage tools and windows.'
'The design should be easy and approachable for new users, while also supporting experienced users in their use of advanced features such as building. Another guiding principle is that the interface should not detract from in-world content – the world is the centerpiece.'
Of course, a lot of users are concerned that an overly simplified interface (well ... 'drool-proof' or 'point and drool interface' as they are sometimes called) will make it harder on advanced users, or more involved or complex to perform advanced tasks.
Not so, Ben assures us, 'Although we're very serious about revising the Viewer UI to simplify it for new users, ultimately our goal is to make the Viewer more usable for all Residents. Simplifying the UI doesn't mean dumbing it down, it means making it smarter – fewer clicks to perform common tasks; off-loading the burden of window management from users; more logical, consistent and predictable interaction models.'
Making the user-interface smarter without making it more inconvenient or obstructive? Anyone that can successfully accomplish that without making us want to stab our own eyeballs in frustration gets our vote.
It's a tall order, certainly. Many user-interfaces are at their worst when they try (rather misguidedly) to be helpful. Users of certain popular operating systems know exactly what we're talking about.