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…
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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