Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Design Appeal and Second Life

I’ve been working on a longer post about design thinking…but as often happens I started writing it and the longer I wrote the more it seemed to meander off and take a life of its own, so I put it aside and will get back to it when I have the willpower to whip it into some kind of coherent thought, or the illusion of a coherent thought, or maybe I’ll just publish it as is and you’ll never know the difference.

But against that backdrop, I ran across Hamlet’s post on ‘point-and-click’ avatar movement in Second Life, and thought at first that it was a case of forest and trees, but then figured I’d give him some credit and pretend he was posing questions within a larger design framework rather than focusing on some seemingly irrelevant piece of the puzzle as to how SL can achieve wide-spread adoption.

I mean really – Hamlet proposes that if only we could move our avatars by just kind of clicking on the ground, like in The Sims, say, that this would help unlock some new wave of immigrants to Second Life and we’d be on our way to ubiquity.

Which still feels to me like it’s an exceptionally incremental idea, but hey – increments count, and according to Hamlet, this will unlock the chain-smoking Korean market (in spite the fact that the Lab just shut down their Korean localization efforts).

But the issue of in-world navigation fits into a broader question of design appeal, and directly relates to how design, whether of the Web site, the way you move your avatar, or the way you find ’stuff’ contributes to what Mark Kingdon says is a “need to make Second Life much more accessible to a wide audience. It has to be a delightful experience.”

Design Appeal
Donald Norman, author, professor and former Apple fellow, speaks of emotional design – and what makes stuff appealing. One of his contributions to our understanding of ‘design thinking’ is the concept of design appeal, which is also a handy crib notes reminder that making something a ‘delightful experience’ can be viewed as working on three levels:

The Visceral Level - wherein we respond mostly to appearances, and leads to that ‘object lust’ that some people get when they see a new iPhone or television set or OXO potato peeler.

The Behavioral Level
– which is where usability comes into play, and which answers the question: “can I master this? Does it seem useful?”

and The Reflexive Level, which is tied up with issues of identity, self-worth and intellectual appeal. “Do I want to be associated with this product? Do I feel good about owning it? Can I tell stories about it and impress others?”

Design Thinking and Second Life
What I find interesting about this model, when extrapolating it to virtual worlds, is how much attention we pay to the second characteristic – to trying to sort out the mastery issues. And it’s not to say that these issues aren’t important – I can tell you that for myself, behavioral issues are a major reason why I abandon certain games, especially the ones aimed at a 14 year old with lightning reflexes who was born with a Playstation controller in her hands.

Mirror’s Edge, for example, was viscerally appealing to me, I wanted it, and I wanted to see what it was all about, but as soon as I was required to remember some complicated combination move involving holding down the R2 key and doing some weird combination of other buttons – well, I abandoned it, other than to stare at the texturing every now and then and to admire the avatar mesh.

In Second Life, attention has been paid to the visceral level with a new Web site and some fancy machinima and some vague attempts at PR which tries to reach out to people who have never been in SL before or who have maybe heard of it in passing. But I wouldn’t say that we’ve moved into ‘object lust’ yet – it’s not quite polished enough, the value proposition is a little murky, but just as critically the final piece of the puzzle has been given a passing glance, so far anyways, which is to get to the point where more people are willing to share and stand on a soap box and advocate for Second Life or virtual worlds in, um, mixed company.

Hour Minus One and Plus One Hundred

So while Hamlet has a great point – which is to focus on behavioral issues, I’m actually of a belief that it’s at the visceral and reflexive level where Second Life falls down. And the main focus, I believe, should be not just on that first hour, but on the negative one hour and the “one hundredth hour”:

- How do you convince people that virtual worlds are “must haves” (or at least “really should check it out”), and how do you provide them with a value proposition and points of engagement ahead of actually learning to do stuff? ideas I’ve advocated for in the past include variable levels of immersion (being able to participate in an SL event without actually coming “in-world” much like people can watch Metanomics and participate as a ‘teaser’ to actually coming on in and joining us), and creating avatar-customization options separate from the registration pathway (much like in games you tweak your avatar appearance before you even enter the world, or like in Spore how you could create and publish creatures to your Facebook profile before you even owned the game).

- And how do you convince people that the actualization of their experience in Second Life is worth recommending to friends? And while I’m not a big fan of all these Farmville invitations I get, there’s probably something to be said for creating little viral promotional widgets in social media or something.

But on this latter point, our reflexive reaction to virtual worlds is a tenuous thing. Changes to policy, to the rules of the game, can rapidly turn our love of something into an experience that we don’t necessarily want to write home about. And yet if we can tap what is generally a deep passion and commitment to virtual worlds into the sort of reflexive advocacy that Donald Norman talks about, then maybe we can close the loop on “lust to have” and “passion to promote”.


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