Applications and Tools, Second Life

User Interface Design Contest: Towards a Winner

Selecting a winner from the entries to the User Interface design contest was a bit like choosing your favorite color: it’s not that there’s a wrong choice, it’s just that you look a lot better in black than I do maybe.

Here was the theory: the Second Life is home to one of the richest, most thoughtful and dedicated communities in the world today. Philip can call this community a terrarium if he wants, I suppose he means the same thing. I’d call it one of the deepest potential sources of value and innovation available to brands, organizations, institutions and, perhaps most importantly, to people who just want to experience what a world of imagination feels like, and by so doing start to get a sense of one way in which the future can unfold.

So I set out with my own personal perspective: Second Life loses the potential to attract and keep new users for a variety of reasons. Now, this is my own biased perspective, but if I had to rank them it would be something like the following:

1. An unclear value proposition – Linden Lab can rely on its residents all it wants, give an annual award or whatever, but more broadly they need to communicate a “why”. Philip comparing SL to Warcraft doesn’t help. He struggled to explain WHY an immersive 3D environment is better than a Lively room, or Flash-based 3D chat.

2. Coupled with this, a poorly constructed outreach effort to both content creators (think gaming platforms and how they outreach to developers) and the casual user. I’ll let them off the hook on the latter, because until they can sustain larger concurrency numbers there’s no point in aggressively inviting more people to the party.

3. Poor tools for connecting people with people. I took a friend on his first SL tour. He figured out how to move. He figured out search. But after teleporting around a bit he said “OK, but how do I find people?”

4. Coupled with that, a poor registration and orientation experience.

5. And finally, the viewer.

The viewer is only one part of the bigger picture. And even incremental changes can, I think, make a big difference. While I miss the RSS feed on the home page, I think for example that making sure the loading graphics are appealing can have a small impact on creating that sort of ‘pop’ that a new user experiences when they first realize they’re entering a world in which anything is possible (although, yeah, if all they find are unbuilt sims then they won’t stay long).

The UI contest wasn’t an exercise in usability design. Without usability testing, data, surveys, and maybe one of those eyeball tracking exercises where you see whether someone looks all over to find inventory, what you’re doing is brainstorming.

And what a brainstorm the contest has been. It set out to accomplish a few objectives:

- Contribute ideas and perspectives to a wider discussion of UI design
- Generate discussion around philosophies and approaches
- Perhaps generate some features that could be put into the development pipeline.

I was so excited by the quality of the entries. Over the coming week, I’ll publish a series of blogs on specific ideas that arose from the contest.

Frustrated with inventory management? Or managing object permissions? Or trying to sort out multiple IMs and group messages? Or ever wanted simpler tools for managing groups? There were some stunning ideas in these and other areas.

But we did promise a winner. And our panel of judges brought their wisdom to helping decide. I can’t thank Ordinal Malaprop, Keystone Bouchard, Eristic Strangelove, and Vint Falken enough for their efforts in helping to decide. I will say that it was a near tie across the board.

And what the judges found was that not only did the contestants suggest significant usability improvements to specific features and tools, they also put incredible thought into how to rework the interface in a way that would truly shift and improve the new user experience.

The approaches they took to this were varied: from a top-down approach, to clustering functions, to focusing on tutorials. The entries were significant exercises in clarifying the user experience. And as such, I can’t applaud enough the talents and energies that every contestant brought to the task.

The difference between the entries was slight but after significant agonizing, the winners were selected.

Join me at Metanomics where I’ll announce the winners.


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