Is usability a dirty word in SL?

At the risk of sounding like a total noob (yes, I have been a SL “resident” since 2008), it kind of hit me yesterday how not user friendly SL is. As I’ve said on this blog before, I don’t really have a separate identity in SL; my avatar basically looks like me and I use SL mostly to teach, see awesome art, do research, and hang out with friends. Long story short, I recently cut my hair in a pixie in RL and pondered getting a new do in SL as well. Vaneeesa was kind enough to send me a demo of Amacci’s new Celine crop, and decided to make the plunge. I’ve been sporting the same long hair in SL for quite a while now, so trying on, buying, and fitting my new “wig” was an adventure to say the least. While I have written articles about usability in SL and argued my lungs out at conferences that the steep learning curve of SL could be overcome with the right pedagogical approach, obtaining my new do was nothing short of a struggle.  

First off, nothing in SL is intuitive. To make up for this deficiency, I think many vendors have tried to compensate by designing merchandise and set ups following what I call “structured imagination” (aka – applying RL conventions to SL). Stores designed in that fashion are hard to navigate and, in my opinion, counter-intuitive. If it takes 5 minutes for the merchandise to rez, I’m not sticking around to see what I’m missing. Also, I’m not going to stand around reading a font 5 bulletin board that explains what I need to do to get my merchandise. I want to click on it and wear it. Second case and point, do you know how many noobs I saw walking around wearing boxes?!?! Too many to count. Fortunately, I just made out wearing my hair on my chin. Oh! And there was the “wig garden” incident.

So in the big scheme of things, it wasn’t THAT hard to get my new hair, but it wasn’t a piece of pie either.  And remember that Vaneeesa had given me the heads up – I knew what I was getting. I can’t even begin to think what I would have done had I needed to browse through the Hair Fair. On second thought, I do need to get a striped Breton shirt to complete my Jean Seberg look – maybe I’ll document that experience in another post. My hair does look great, though.

All of this did make me think about how realistic it is to teach entirely in SL with students that do not have prior experience with the media. It is one thing to be teaching “digital natives” who are used to posting on Facebook and twitting, and quite another to be fully functioning SL residents. I remember hearing a few years ago that the University of Texas was moving their distance learning program to SL. I wonder if they were able to overcome the “steep learning curve” I’ve been hearing about since I started this project, or if the program went down the drain, like so many others. Does anyone know? What do you all think about SL usability or lack thereof? Does it truly impede learning or can it be feasibly overcome using media appropriate pedagogical methods and strategies? Or does the steep learning curve just keep people that shouldn’t be in SL out of it? If that’s the case, formal education should be staying out of the medium altogether and concentrating their efforts (like I am) on informal learning. Thoughts?

Author: Kathleen Cool
I am a graduate student studying how people experience informal education, particularly art, in virtual worlds such as Second Life. My background is in both Art History and Computer Science. Please feel free to email me or IM me in SL (Kathleen Koolhoven) if you have any questions regarding my current research or want to participate in my study.

3 thoughts on “Is usability a dirty word in SL?

  1. I think Univ of Texas created the Alamo sim.

    Are you using Viewer 3, btw? I tried to use Viewer 2 and was really put off. I’ve tried Viewer 3 but even that viewer isn’t right. So I will switch to Firestorm if they fix a sim crossing bug. For now, I’m using Phoenix 1.6.

    In general, the “useability” lessons of the 1990s seem to be disappearing from newer applications. I think designers should learn the lesson of history before stomping off to create the next great thing. So many applications these days seem to be usuability challenges. Jus sayin

  2. When we talk about useability there’s one other pet peeve I have. New people coming to SL start with Viewer 3 and dispite the fact that I dislike it, I suppose it is possible to learn it. Here’s the peeve though, if you are new and you ask me for help, I can’t help you.

    The designer/geniuses (and I include Mark Kingdon in this group) who came up with V2 and expected everyone in SL to happily convert never imagined the disaster they were creating by changing virtually everything. So today, there’s the V2/3 newbies and there’s the huge group of oldtimers who refuse to adapt. I can’t even point you to the right dropdown menus. I think this was a collosal failure, one that should go into the next edition of Fumbling the Future.

  3. aww, poor Kathleen, well, at least it LOOKS great! And it IS better to look good than to have an easy to use UI, right? Just see your next post! 😛

    I’ll forgo commenting on the first paragraphs to be sure I get to the last where you discuss VWs 4 EDU…

    As Ironyca can tell you, 3D Studio Max or Maya etc, are NOT user friendly, NOT easy learning curves for noobs. They are super-powerful tools for the motivated, which excludes most people.

    As you suggest, I kind of think SL is there too. haha, SL’s easier than Maya! I’ve tried taking a lot of general ed students to SL and the vast majority of them hate it, hate it a lot. A few love it but that’s a very small minority. You’ve taken students to SL also Kathleen, right? How did that work out?

    I think it’s a powerful space for the motivated, but too steep a learning curve for everyone else.

    What is too steep a learning curve? Well, I kind of thing anything that’s harder to use than Facebook is too hard. And pretty much everything is harder to use than Facebook. So…

    Most people… My mom… my students… my self… like what they already know how to use and aren’t that eager to fuss with new tools. Sure there are dweebs who sign up for everything. Sure I might be one of them. But it’s one thing to say “ok, I’ll pin some stuff on PInterest,” and another to say I’ll really figure out Cloud Party or Blue Mars and start making great works.

    For me VW’s are such exciting environments. But I think we’re not going to have a lot of success dragging peeps there. Then again, this blog is a lot easier to use than SL, and there are a lot of peeps who will never leave Facebook to mess around on a blog.

    Hmm… but it’s also true that many peeps love doing SL and find blogs or Facebook boring… so I guess we’re back to peeps liking what they like!

    In my experience digital natives do have a certain aptitude… like the ability to pick up any model of cell phone they’ve never seen in their lives and get it to do anything instantly, or play games on an iPad in seconds. BUT, they don’t seem to be any more able or interested in dealing with Wikis, Blogs, or certainly Virtual Worlds.

    Does anyone know what percentage of the peeps are “gamers”?

    Haha, not to be bleak… but it seems that way.

    Whaddya think?

    I hope we haven’t, like, trashed your thesis or anything… :/

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