Thursday, February 16, 2006

Why SL Should be Focused More on "Ease of Use" - Because it Pays Off!

What lead me to this post were two events in the past two weeks: the introduction of a functionality for buying L$ right in the client and a user lamenting the lack of a "manual" for Second Life on the forums. These seemingly unrelated events are heavily related. Both are about ease of use! "Ease of use", usability etc. are nice catch phrases and sometimes get a little overhiped. I admit! But the the new functionality for buying L$ shows why it makes a lot of sense for any business to focus on usability. It is good for the bottom line!

The new "Buy L$" dialog box in the Second Life client. Simple!

Make it easy for them to spend their money - and they will!
When this new functionality was introduced, the trade volume on the LindeX jumped to 7,2 Million L$ the next day, to 7,4 Million L$ the day after that. Over the weekend more than 21 Million L$ changed hands - with the value of the L$ rising! Nothing else changed. It was only much more convenient suddenly to buy L$. Granted, that does not mean much for LLs bottom line. Dealing 1 Million L$ more on the LindeX just means 35,000 L$ more in commissions. But it shows the principle: If you make it more convenient, less confusing and less intimidating for your potential customers to spend their money at your website - they will spend more money. And the old way was significantly less convenient, more confusing and more intimidating. have a look:

The old "Buy L$" process; only available on the website!

What's to learn from this example?
This simple learning might show the way for a solution to one of Second Lifes biggest problems: the very high churn rate. While the number of residents is growing at an impressive rate, we all know that many of these new residents are on a free account and probably will not stay very long. One - not the only, but an important - reason for is "Ease of Use"; or better: the lack of it. The first hours and days in SL can be very hard for someone who is not a seasoned gamer or a little afraid of new software (which many in some important target groups for SL are).

There are many ways to make SL easier to use. The client has many aspects that are horrible from an usability, for example. The inworld support structures could be much better. etc. etc. Removing theses hurdles would be costly and take a lot of time. I still think it would pay off. I am willing to accept nearly any bet, that the balance between effort and result (more paying residents) is much better for usability improvemens than for the introduction of Havok 2 or other "sexy features".

Give us a manual!
But there is a much easier way to make (Second) Life harder for newbies: Give them a good manual. Let's face it: Second Life is not a small piece of software. Its is not a small, simple utility. Yet there are not many small simple utility programs that come without a manual. Why? Because it makes the software easier to use. More customers will understand how to use the software, keep it after the trial period and pay for it.

There are many excuses for not having a manual - or at least a good "Introduction to SL" - but they are all just that: excuses. Let's look at some of them.

No, manuals are not for wimps. While a seasoned PC user might "just install an try out" a new product, many people would simply refuse working with a new software, unless the have access to a manual, a tutorial or took a training course. That's rather "normal" and if LL wants to cater to non-geek target groups it has to accept this attitude.

No, a wiki is not substitute for a manual or tutorial. A wiki can be a nice part of a software documentation. And SL has some nice ones advertised on the website. A wiki has a lot of advantages - and some disadvantages, too. And a lot of people just love something more "sequential". That maybe hopelessly oldfashioned - but ... that's how people are. And, honestly, as a customer, especially as a new and inexperienced custumer, I don't want to have to click through a website and try out half a dozen differently structured wikis, FAQs etc.

No, a collection of notecards is not substitute for a manual or tutorial. While "plain text, cut into convenient lines" is sufficient for many purposes in a less-is-more attitude, there are much more easily digestable forms of presenting information. Pictures, tables, diagrams, a little bold text, a bullet point now and then etc. have their uses. Having a notecard covering half of my screen while fiddling around on some problem inworld is not a very stress free situation either.

No, a helper island is not substitute for a manual or tutorial. Don't get me wrong: what is done at helper island, what the helpers, greeters and volunteers contribute to SL is great. But many people - for whatever reasons - like the self study mode. Or they like to read up on it in advance, or read about it after a F2F session ... And - like with notecards - having someone describe to me in chat how to do something is not really the best way to teach every aspect of a (sometimes frightening) new software; especially while I am still fighting with chat and IM and walking and flying!

No, manuals and tutorial are not for boring old ladies who will never use SL anyway. When some of the Suicide Girls joined SL last week I checked a few blog pages on their website. And guess what? There were actually complaints by these cool kids about SL being "to hard/complicated". No everyone grew up in front of a PC screen.

No, an O'Reilly "Hacks" book is not substitute for a manual or tutorial. I guess, I don't have to elaborate on that topic.

No, a manual would not cost the world! Working with the material already collected in the various wikis, FAQ, forum arcticles etc. a good technical writer who is proficient with SL could do a an adequate manual including a nice tutorial/intoduction (but excluding details of LSL) in 20 - 30 days, a good one in 60 and an excellent one in a 100 days.

No, the weekly updates don't kill any effort to keep a manual up to date! A huge number of updates does not change anything at the frontend in a significant way. Even some of the last .X updates have not changed much at the front end of SL. Most updates could be reflected in the manual with a few hours work. This would cost less probably than the free coffee that developers get during the night shifts for that update.

So ...
Please give as a printable manual and an Introduction to SL.


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