Wednesday, February 20, 2008

User experience design at Linden Lab - deeply disappointing

Tonight I read about a new First Look Viewer for Second Life, Dazzle, downloaded it and played around with it a bit. (Picture to the right by Torley Linden.) First Look clients are not Market Research. All of the features, Linden Lab releases with First Look Viewers so far, have been incorporated into the main version later. Scary ... read on!

I was very much excited to test this out, as this new version was announced with words like:

We’re pleased to announce First Look: Dazzle, a “refresh” for the Second Life viewer’s appearance which makes the UI (User Interface) more accessible and pleasing.

It is my strong belief, that the shortcomings of the current user interface of Second Life are one of the major issues leading to the extremely low user retention especially in the first 30 - 90 minutes. Learning Second Life is NOT easy for the average internet user. ANY improvement of the client's usability would be extremely welcome to me. Alas ...

... after playing around with Dazzle for 30 minutes I can only say: deeply disappointing!

What has happened is basically nothing more than the application of a new skin and color scheme. Cosmetic changes. Pure facelifting. Some icons have been changed. The style of windows, buttons and other interface elements is now basically that of a "polished Windows NT/XP" and everything has been made a little brighter.

Nothing else was changed in a substantial way! The illogical grouping of commands into menus with arcane or misleading names is still the same. Some important commands are still well hidden, rarely needed ones appear in the menu top levels. I wonder, how one can say, that any of these changes improved usability or accessibility at all (some texts are more readable maybe; stronger contrasts).

This leads me again, to question the way this company, Linden Lab, is doing user experience design. I honestly wonder

  • Have the interim versions been tested with real users (especially newbies) in a controlled environment?

  • Was there any comparative testing (old and new versions with different groups)?

  • What were the goals of this project?

  • Which measurable performance indicators have been defined to check, if (which) goals have been achieved?

To be honest, I very much doubt that anything like this happened. This looks like a bunch of enthusiastic engineers got together and attacked some weaknesses of the current viewer/client - guided by their own taste or suggestions in publicly available literature and eager to demonstrate the relatively new feature of "XML-based customizability" introduced to the SL viewer last year. Disappointing. Deeply disappointing.


  1. I saw screen shots of this a while ago, and my reaction was those same. Put make up on a pig, and it is still a pig.

  2. Flipper, to me, the problem is not the make up. Don't get me wrong. I LIKE make up applied tastefully ;)

    But tastes differ.

    And to use such a project - the first general overhaul of the user interface of SL - just to chance some colors and make the buttons more square and glossy ... OMG this is just such a waste of creative resources.

    Do a dozen or two dozen user interviews. Do a usability lab in a controlled environment, see where they stumble. Create 5 - 6 personas. Reshuffle the interface elements, test again, fine tune and polish ...

    I guess such a process would not have cost much more than this useless facelift - and would have helped the newbie experience so much more.

    Its incredibly frustrating to see a company like Linden Lab doing product development like "2 guys in a garage". (OK, I am exaggerating - but just a little).

  3. This echoes my own misgivings. I ranted about the many problems of SL's interface some time ago : the inconsistency, badly cobbled together paradigms from several application types, geek trickiness and plainly confusing presentation.

    I jokingly mentioned Dazzle as an attempt to paint the utterly cluttered tool shed SL instead of getting things straightened out, but I hoped back then it would only see the light linked to a major interface overhaul.

    Instead, they've gone and added bling to the interface, or, to stay with my old simile : spray painted the tool shed in garish fluorescent colours. Trust LL to get things wrong, but to spin them as if they were reshaping the world :). I think they're simply loath to admit they haven't got a clue.

  4. As far as I know it's not so much LL as the Electric Sheep Company creating a skin to promote their 'theLoop' application. Linden Labs just gave the usual Torley Linden Trademark response - "Hey look at this! It might not work but its shiny!"

  5. Hi digado, I don't know "how far you know" (how could I) but Dazzle does not look like an ESC-influenced project to me. What I am sure of, is, that Dazzle certainly is not a vehicle for "theLoop".

    Actually I could not care less, if this process were ignited by ESC or not. I still would be happy, if it had resulted in a more useable interface that is more easy to learn for the novice user - and not just in some changes in color and window styles.

    Additionally I think it's unfair, to bash Torley in this context. She is simply a very enthusiastic and utterly positive person. I don't think it is a fault in a person to find "the best" in the projects you have to do. :)

  6. Nope, its not ESC my bad, they created the onRez Viewer, different client.

    As for Torley, I am not bashing him as a person, I am bashing LL as placing him on the front lines as a spokes puppet for these kind of releases - like Windlight :) It's their strategy and it simply doesn't appeal to me.

    Torley is always positive, if LL invents 'LL dogpoo-on-a-stick' he will be positive about it and that's his good right, however, that's not useful information to me.

  7. I've posted a small, admittedly somewhat biased, pictorial review of the Dazzle interface revamp on my Flickr stream. It is so ridiculously easy to poke fun at it I'm nearly ashamed to have done so. Well, nearly :)

  8. Friendly greetings! I'd readily encourage those of you who're interested in talking about and advancing Second Life's user interface + experience to come to Benjamin Linden's office hours!

    * When: Thursdays @ 3:00-4:00 PM PST
    * Where:

    One's happening as I write this!

    Also, see Hamlet's original post for an update, but no, I didn't have a major role in influencing Dazzle's look... I'm helping with community communication, so please make sure specific issues you have are in our Issue Tracker! We're taking a look at some of the ones already filed.

  9. Dear Torley,
    first let me say, that I am a great fan of yours (as you prolly know)
    second let me add, that I consider those office hours very important and a very sensible activity of Linden Lab

    But - and this is a big "but" - what I was critisizing here was the process Linden Lab is doing user experience design. And your suggestion to come to the office hours and voice our concerns actually HIGHLIGHTS the flaws of this process.

    It is very important, to gather feedback from your users. But office hours only gather feedback from the most active and most enganged users. The same is true for Issue Tracker systems. In addition - aside from actual "bugs" - both ways of gathering feedback collect OPINIONS not facts.

    If you want to design software in a way, that the majority of user has an optimal user experience, this has to be done in a process, that ensures objective data gathering - and especially data gathering from those users which need an easy to use software most: newbies! Thats what user interviews and usability labs are for.

    Please don't be offended, when I say this, Torley (its nor your fault anyway) but the way Linden Lab is doing user interface design is probably the state-of-the-art of the mid 90s: developer creating cool stuff and asking their users "tell me what you like or don't".

    That's not very efficient. :(

    To be honest: I did it myself that way until 2001 or 2002. And many of our customers still do it like that. Even the big corps. This does not change the fact, that it is inefficient, not very professional (because not reflecting the state of the art) and costs you many prospective customers.

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  11. Pham, thanks for the thoughtful and candid response to Dazzle. Resident feedback is extremely valuable to those of us working on interface design at Linden Lab.

    Your comments about user experience design are dead-on. Dazzle wasn't intended to address the Viewer's fundamental usability problems, as you can see from the project goals (which have been posted for many months):

    When I joined Linden Lab a year ago, I was the only user experience designer at the company. We now have a small and growing team of user experience professionals who are actively engaged in exactly the activities you suggested: user studies, interviews, focus groups, etc. Unfortunately, as you noted, these are time-consuming and resource intensive activities, so it will take some time to see the benefits in the viewer.

    We recognize Dazzle isn't a panacea to our usability problems; that was never the intent. But it is one step on a very long road toward a more usable, useful and delightful Second Life experience.

    Ben Glenn
    User Experience Designer
    Linden Lab/Second Life