Speaking of user retention: Part 1 – the User Interface

Linden Lab's infographic on Second Life's 10th anniversary. 36 million accounts, eh? It'd be safe to say that half of them are throwaway accounts created by griefers, trolls, bullies, scammers and copybotters.

Linden Lab’s infographic on Second Life’s 10th anniversary. 36 million accounts, eh?

Last year, Linden Lab released an infographic on the opportunity of Second Life’s tenth birthday. According to this infographic, approximately 36 million accounts had been created since SL opened its doors in 2003, and it currently has about one million active users. Having been involved in Second Life since 2006 (when I started my first – now defunct – account), my experience tells me that these figures represent very little in practical, bottom line terms.

You see, this infographic does not tell us if these accounts are unique, i.e. correspond to separate individual RL persons or if they also include alts and bots (including throwaway accounts created by griefers, or the armies of sockpuppets maintained by stalkers and trolls). Unfortunately, since the Lab does not disclose more concrete and reliable information, I’ll have to make do with these figures. Even so, the gap between the number of accounts created and the number of active accounts seems impressive. How impressive is it, though? How does it compare to other services of the past and the present? I honestly don’t know. I would need similar figures for the likes of AOL, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo! (in the pre-Facebook days, their groups and chatrooms provided early forms of social networking), or for various MMO and virtual world services.

Still, a popular topic of discussion among SL users and bloggers is user retention. People keep talking about how new users don’t “stick”, and about how existing users end up leaving SL. Various explanations of varying plausibility have been put forward. Beginning with this, in some of my upcoming articles I’ll try to discuss several of the “usual suspects” – and I’ll start with the user interface.

Before we begin…

Before we proceed any further, I’ll go on record once again for saying that discussing user retention as a problem is counter-productive – and yes, I’ll once again have to explain the difference between a problem and a symptom, because too many people confuse the two.

Symptom: It is the result of a problem; it is caused by a problem. It is the evidence by which a problem can become known to us. However, because symptoms are usually all the warning and indication we get that something is wrong, and because of a lack of rational thinking that characterises far too many people (especially some delusional people who fashion themselves as “paradigms of rationality”), symptoms are all too often misidentified as problems.

Problem: It is a holistic and systemic failure of something we are trying to accomplish and manifests itself through a variety of symptoms.

Understanding the difference is important, because, when you mistake a symptom for a problem, you are not fighting the underlying cause, but the result. Effectively, you’re barking at the wrong tree. This is a waste of time, money and resources. Lots of time spent, lots of heated arguments, and what are the results? Nothing. It has no end and, by allowing the underlying problems to persist, the symptoms will persist too, resulting in frustration, disillusion and, more often than not, serious tensions.

On the other hand, identifying the problem and treating the problem instead of its symptoms gets things done; it has an end. It creates momentum and satisfaction. And, of course, it allows you to move on to the next issue rather than keep wasting your time, your money, your energy and your resources on ineffective efforts.

So, user retention is not a problem, but a symptom, a manifestation of other underlying causes that are the problems.

So, how difficult is Second Life’s user interface to learn anyway?

Now, let’s get back to the matter at hand… I can’t remember a day of my SL going by without someone – on the feeds, on various forums (official and unofficial), on blogs, etc. – claiming that the user interface is a major contributing factor to the fact that most new users don’t “stick”. I’ll also have to say that some of the most vocal in this group of people are proponents of the “old school” V1 interface.

Once again, I’ll go on record for saying that I never liked that interface. In fact, I hated it. It had a cheesy, tacky, toy-like Fisher-Price feel to it, its controls were bulky, took up far too much valuable screen space, and in my memory it will always be connected with the following bits that should make me so nostalgic of days past:

  • Mandatory viewer updates on a nearly weekly basis. More often than not, the new viewer that you had to install if you wanted to log in was buggy and unreliable. So, after lots of bickering and moaning on LL’s old, free WordPress.com (oh yes) blog and, later, its official forums, it was either fixed (more or less) or rolled back. So, you had to either reinstall last week’s viewer that (sort of) worked or install the new one and keep your fingers crossed.
  • The offline Wednesdays, when the grid was down while the Lindens were “banging on things”. These often extended well into Thursday…
Remember the offline Wednesdays, when you couldn't use SL while the Lab was updating the platform's underlying code? (Image courtesy of Inara Pey; original credit: Robin Cornelius)

Remember the offline Wednesdays, when you couldn’t use SL while the Lab was updating the platform’s underlying code? (Image courtesy of Inara Pey; original credit: Robin Cornelius)

Still, even the V1 interface that is rather inexplicably presented by a vocal minority as the paradigm of ergonomic UI design is considered by many as “too hard” and “too complex”.

I beg to differ. As I explained when commenting on Mr. Rosedale’s keynote speech at this year’s SVVR, it’s not too complex and it’s not too counter-intuitive. It has new, unfamiliar concepts, which is expectable and understandable; as a virtual world, SL (and its OpenSim clones) is a shared creative and social space, with no particular goal or endgame (just like real life – RL), and in this it differs vastly from traditional MMO games like World of Warcraft, or Dungeons & Dragons Online (and games inspired by this franchise). Throngs of RPG enthusiasts are familiar with the terminology of these games, what they can do in-game is strictly defined beforehand by the developers – and what they can do is far more restricted than in SL. Oh, and, being games, they have a very specific goal, a quest that must be completed. So, they’re pretty much ready to play and enjoy the game as soon as they join. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t games with complex user interfaces.

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13 thoughts on “Speaking of user retention: Part 1 – the User Interface

  1. I have said this before: my best example of the difficult UI myth = a 6-year old brother of my son’s friend within one hour was able to build a car in a sandbox in SL! Determination is KEY I’d say!!!!

  2. I’m not sure the most appropriate term is “determination”. I prefer the term “motivation”, because it’s a prerequisite for determination. People who join SL are generally unmotivated, as I explained in my post. I see three main categories of people who can’t (be bothered to) get to grips with the UI:

    Many expect it to be a game like WoW, DDO, Ikariam, Travian, Grepolis, or whatever. SL is not a game, so they leave, because there’s no quest for them, no goal to reach etc.

    Then you have the IMVU “3D chatters” (basically, IMVU is just another meat market). They expect SL to be like IMVU; it’s not. So, off they go and I honestly won’t miss them; if only I had a penny for every IMVU notification from friends on my RL Facebook…

    And then, you have people who want instant gratification in whatever they came to do in SL. This third category lacks all kinds of patience, so they’re certainly not going to stay. Mind you, even if all Lindens sit down to update the official SL wiki, and even if LL makes the best tutorials for new users, the people of the last category won’t stay; these people don’t read manuals or instructions, and I view them as tyre-kickers. Trying to appeal to this third category would be an inappropriate use of scarce resources on behalf of the Lab.

    Let’s face it: SL and similar virtual worlds are not for everyone. They appeal to certain kinds of people who can see something useful or fun for them in virtual worlds. And yes, this does mean they’re niche platforms, although Mr. Rosedale keeps yapping on about “a billion users”, which is the kind of hogwash thrown around to attract venture capital.

  3. I agree with “motivation” being the key element here. To borrow a term from your post, “bringing home the bacon” in SL is, for a newbie, not about money. People who stay benefit from SL in ways that are more about community, self expression, creativity, etc. I suspect those who endure beyond their first few hours have some inkling of that in advance of signing up.

  4. it would be interesting to compare the percentage of ppl creating accounts and then staying in the plateform for long, and the same percentage for other plateforms or games. The first motivation that push ppl to create an account in every kind of plateform or games, is curiosity. Curiosity is not enought for creating a long time run motivation. They come, see, and leave.
    On top, indeed, the fact the interface is not easy, doesnt help. But here, im afraid SL won”t be able to fix a society problem : the fact ppl give up at the first difficulty nowadays, and go in another direction.
    With the big ammount of Web offers, ppl no longer try to focus for long time on a effort… they can’t do it in a simple bunch of click ? No problem. They jump elsewhere and try another bunch of clicks..
    Really interesting read btw Mona. I can’t wait to read the following posts on this topic.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Trin!

      Unfortunately, the type of data provided by the Lab is not the most useful, and I don’t have data regarding other social platforms or MMOs. Especially regarding MMO games, there are certain developers (like Gameforge, makers of Ikariam, or InnoGames, makers of Grepolis) that strictly forbid alts. This is of course useful to them, but it makes comparison to SL, where anyone can have an army of alts (or sockpuppets, depending on how they are used) more difficult.

      Even if we were to compare SL to Yahoo!, MSN, ICQ or Facebook, where you can have a whole lot of different accounts, we don’t have the data to assess each platform’s performance w.r.t. user retention. How many accounts have been created on Yahoo! for its chatrooms and groups since their inceptions? How many are still active? How many accounts have been created on Facebook? How many are currently active? How does each platform define what is considered an “active account”? How many unique users does each platform have (because they make it possible for someone to have any number of extra accounts)?

      It would be very interesting to have such data available so we could discuss things in a far more useful and productive manner. As it is, any discussion on SL’s user retention begins from problematic premises, exactly because of the lack of useful information.

      What is this useful information I’d like to have in order to better discuss user retention?

      1. Number of unique user sign-ups since SL opened its virtual doors;
      2. Number of total user sign-ups since SL opened its virtual doors;
      3. Number of total user sign-ups per year;
      4. Number of unique user sign-ups per year;
      5. Number of scripted agents (bots) created since SL opened its virtual doors;
      6. Number of scripted agents (bots) created per year;
      7. Number of alts created since SL opened its virtual doors;
      8. Number of alts created per year;
      9. Number of accounts cancelled by their owners since SL opened its virtual doors;
      10. Number of accounts cancelled by their owners per year;
      11. Concurrency-related: Average number of unique users online and how this figure evolves through time;
      12. Concurrency-related: Average number of scripted agents (bots) online and how this figure evolves through time;
      13. Concurrency-related: Average number of alts online and how this figure evolves through time.

      As you can see, there are many pieces missing from the puzzle, and this leaves too much room for conjecture.

      1. yeah, those datas are pretty impossible to get.
        However i do think its a problem larger than SL itself. Maybe you would find those read interesting :
        http://unbtls.ca/teachingtips/pdfs/sew/Continuous_Partial_Attention.pdf
        and http://lindastone.net/qa/continuous-partial-attention/ (her all website is really interesting btw)

        Its not directly related to the topic of your post, but its really connected imho.
        Interestingly, in the first link, they say that online games can be a good solution to help ppl for focusing on smth for a bit of time. But here something is missing badly imho… for being able to be a fix for that, the video game need to first “hook” the person. And as you say in your post, this is not easy at all.

          1. yep ! but on the other hand, SL has more social interaction than a lot of games and also it allow creation of contents.
            Maybe they should focus more their communications on those aspects. They do already but maybe they should insist more.
            Also i do think that for each creation of account one shoud go thru some educational steps before being able to tp to the main grid. One should need to succeed at every steps (really basical ones, but for example, how to find and wear something in the inventory, rezz a box, buy something, unbox an item, fly, etc) for being able to tp to the main grid. And helpers should be here for helping them if needed.
            let’s say there are 10 steps. Till you are not done with those 10 steps you can’t go to the maingrid. Some softwares does this. Its really easy to follow the instructions and then do the lil task asked.

          2. I’ve thought of the fact that SL has a much stronger social and creative element than much of what’s popular out there, and you raise some very valid points that I’ve considered before, w.r.t. new avatar “training”. In Ikariam, Grepolis and Travian, for instance, a new user needs to get through certain steps before being “ready” to “go out into the wild”.

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