After visiting some more current corporate projects in virtual worlds in the last week, I had to recap my presentation about usability at Metavers08 (see the slides here) I wrote about the topic nearly one year ago, but the situation hasn't improved much: Usability is still an aspect that is considered low priority with many projects in virtual worlds - if it is considered at all. The situation is a bit similar to that on the web in the mid 90s: developers and their clients are much more excited about the new possibilities (if they are still excited) or about spectacular design.
When I am writing this, I don't mean the user experience of the virtual world platforms. Granted, especially Second Life IS a usability nightmare and the new user experience is so "well thought out", that many users who would like to give this virtual world a try, simple run away screaming - or at least shaking their heads. The company behind Second Life seems to have realized this lately, though. While I don't know what they will actually do to improve this sad situation, they at least announced a newly found focus on user experience. And other virtual worlds are much more usable right from the start - sometimes because the platforms are a lot less feature-rich, of course. The little "worldlets", for example, the 3D scenes you can embed into web pages, are very simple, rather limited and you don't need to know (or learn) a lot, to be able to use them.
Better usability is good for your business
Sometimes, the new virtual worlds are significantly more user-friendly, though, because their designers realized that it makes sense to offer an easy entrance, early on. The reason is usually not an altruistic one but simple greed: when you want to create a business with/in a virtual world, you better not make it unnecessarily hard for your (potential) customers!
Many companies "trying out the potential of virtual worlds" these days, still don't seem to think this way. If you look at some of the projects from very well know brands in Second Life for example, it is still not uncommon to appear on their sites and not find the slightest clue about what to expect here and where to find it. Some other projects often are not "designed for the avatar" (avatars don't move and don't "see" like humans). The example to the right comes from an early phase of one of our own projects .
This is not limited to Second Life (and Second Life's basic shortcomings are responsible for these faults). And this can't be excused with "we are just experimenting with marketing/sales/training/conferencing in virtual worlds". Simply because a badly designed experiment is not very useful for evaluating the "potential usefulness" of virtual worlds. ...
Interesting enough ... it isn't too hard to do better. Some 25 years with software design (plus some additional 12 years with web design) have told us, how ...
As I mentioned, when the web started to grow, no one thought much about usability. If you can, have a look at the early designs of famous web pages. Some of them were pure horror. Developers and designers had so much new stuff to play with. But over the years, many of these sites improved a lot - because developers and designers learned how to design them more USEable for the user - and the managers behind them realized, that this makes (business) sense, too.
But are the usability rules from the web applicable to virtual worlds?
Yes! Some rules of thumb for good web design can't be applied to virtual worlds, of course. Because - luckily enough - a virtual world is NOT a network of two-dimensional pages build, composed from written texts and some flat pictures. But the basic principles behind these rules of thumb still apply. For example, allways make it as easy as possible for your users to answer the following questions:
- Where am I?
- What can I do here?
- Where can I go from here?
- Where have I been?(How do I get back?)
There are many more principles like this in the field of usability or "software ergonomics". Modern usability practices do not work with "principles written in stone" or rules of thumb, alone, though. There is a much better way to really make sure that your users will understand what you have designed: involve them (at least a few) in the design process!
Let the users help you design your project!
That is basically the idea behind "user centered design" (you can read more about that here). And this certainly can be applied to virtual worlds - with the same methodology that has worked wonders on the web. In short (UCD experts and practitioners will please forgive me):
- Talk with your (future) users, before you start with the design
- Write down a "mental model" that describes how a typical user thinks about the job/task/problem
- Write down detailed descriptions of example users (personas) and their approaches
- Build small and inexpensive prototypes and let real users try them out
- Watch them while doing it
- Try to analyze anything they have problems with and improve it (the user's "stupidity" is NOT the problem)
- Do this again and again (NOT after you have finished the project)
No, this does not cost a lot of money. It can be done with nearly every project at comparably low costs. NOT optimizing your project for usability will cost you money - because your are throwing away money for a project, which could yield much better results. These results don't have to be monetary alone. But often they the will be.
Btw, here is just one example of the business sense in usability: when I was still with my former company Elephant Seven, I built a small division specializing in usability and especially in "user centered design". In one of their first projects, this team improved the usability of an insurance company's web application.They improved it so much, that the client's call center got more than 30% less calls. This alone paid for the whole project in only 6 months time. And we are not even talking about the additional leads and contracts from customers who would have simply "gone away" in the past, not even bothering to pick up the phone.
Just now, projects in virtual worlds are not as essential for the success of a company like the insurance project described here, yet. But they already will cost you money and will make an impression on your customers, clients and partners. Why not make sure, that this money is spend well and that this impression is a good one?