Sunday, June 27, 2010

This Ain't No Disco - or - What Second Life Can Learn From the iPad

This morning when I woke up, I cranked up a Sheryl Crow mix and started catching up on the last week or two of my Instapaper reads. About half way down my eye caught Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox "iPad Usability: First Findings from User Testing". (Full report here. Go on, read the whole thing and make Nicholas Carr proud).
For more than a decade, when we ask users for their first impression of (desktop) websites, the most frequently-used word has been "busy." In contrast, the first impression of many iPad apps is "beautiful." The change to a more soothing user experience is certainly welcome, especially for a device that may turn out to be more of a leisure computer than a business computer. Still, beauty shouldn't come at the cost of being able to actually use the apps to derive real benefits from their features and content.
Get the Wacky Out

Jakob outlines that there are three main issues with iPad application user interfaces: low discoverability of control, accidental navigation, and low memorability (due to inconsistency).  In other words it violates the usability golden triangle - it's just wacky!

Jakob is the king of website usability so no one should be shocked by his prescriptions for solving the iPad usability conundrum. They are (his words but my emphasis):
  • Add dimensionality and better define individual interactive areas to increase discoverability through perceived affordances of what users can do where. 
  • To achieve these interactive benefits, loosen up the etched-glass aesthetic. Going beyond the flatland of iPad's first-generation apps might create slightly less attractive screens, but designers can retain most of the good looks by making the GUI cues more subtle than the heavy-handed visuals used in the Macintosh-to-Windows-7 progression of GUI styles. 
  • Abandon the hope of value-add through weirdness. Better to use consistent interaction techniques that empower users to focus on your content instead of wondering how to get it. 
  • Support standard navigation, including a Back feature, search, clickable headlines, and a homepage for most apps. 
Or, in my words:
  • Don't be so wacky with the controls! Wacky makes baby Jesus cry. 
  • Aesthetic? We don't need no stinking aesthethics
  • No one loves weirdos. Stop it now. No, really. 
  • For the love of all that's usable, adopt our beloved web standards for interface and interaction design. 
Okay, maybe I'm being a little too harsh on dear Jakob.  After all, he admits it is an early review but he doesn't really seem willing to relent on those web standards.

Goodness and Light, Or Darkness and Night?

My puny engineering brain loves standards. I've read every word of DOD-STD-2167A and MIL-STD-2168 and waved them evangelically at non-believers. Standards save lives! Standards save money! Those were our halcyon days, were they not?

Standards work well in factory situations, where you have to create or manage a large number of the same or similar things or processes, where you want to constructively share or collaborate across boundaries, or where you want to constrain options. Standards can be all goodness and light.

On the flip side, standards can also stifle innovation and creative thought, especially when misapplied. (I'm using the broadest application of the term standard here to mean formalized standards like DOD-STD-2167A to more informal standards like the "standard way of thinking".) Standards can also make people lazy, dull their thinking, and give them a false sense of completion and success. It met the standard - it must be right! Standards can be all darkness and night.

The bottom line: standards used effectively are happy times, and standards when misapplied - not so much.

Standardize or Euthanize?

As I'm reading Jakob's report, I notice that one thing he ignores is that iPad applications are not web pages. Applying Web standards to iPad applications may in fact wring the last bit of life, differentiation, and delight from this new form of experience. Web standards help people navigate the web predictably, but when you are "in" an application, you aren't stumbling about the disintegrated web - with any luck you are wandering around a constructed experience that is either entirely leisurely in intent or with a specific task at hand. Let's face it, the iPad itself is nothing short of a casual media consumption device with which you can also get a few things done - or as Jakob says, it's a leisure computer and not a business computer.

As for standards, Apple has released their own standards for iPad applications that are in some cases amusingly contradictory to Jakob's suggestions. For example, regarding discoverability and perceived affordances (from the iPad Human Interface Guidelines):
De-emphasize User Interface Controls:  Help people focus on the content by designing your application UI as a subtle frame for the information they’re interested in. Downplay application controls by minimizing their number and prominence. .. Consider creating custom controls that subtly integrate with your application’s graphical style. In this way, controls are discoverable, without being conspicuous.
Second Life Viewer 3.X - This Ain't No Disco

The entire iPad Human Interface Guideline is a good read (if you are into that kind of thing) and it got me thinking about the next revision of the Second Life® Viewer. If you want to design for immersive applications (leisurely or otherwise), the Apple iPad guidelines are much more constructive than web navigation standards because they make a clear distinction between the User Interface (UI) and the User Experience (UX).

Like iPad apps, Second Life is not a website. However, Viewer 2.0 feels a little like a well-schooled Jakobian artifact. Some simple navigation metaphors hold up (such as the "back" button) but a web-like search standard is a death knell.  People are not searching for web pages in Second Life, they are searching for things in context of the world - people, groups, events, etc.  Web search standards here don't apply.

Content and interactivity are paramount to the experience, both on the iPad and Second Life.  The best iPad applications downplay the UI so that the focus is on the content that people want or need. In other words, it's best to design the experience and adhere to the interface

Of course in order to design the experience, you have to understand the experience. Let me rephrase that, you need to live the experience, as in grok it. This may have been where Viewer 2.0 has fallen the most dreadfully short - too much UI and not enough UX. It's not clear that adequate experience, mental models, use cases or scenarios drove the development of Viewer 2.X.

This might also explain why Third Party Viewers like Emerald, Kristin and Imprudence are so widely adopted by the community. Each TPV has struck its own balance between the UI (control) and UX (experience) in ways that resonate with Residents.

Most builders I know swear by Emerald and have become so attached to it they cannot imagine using another viewer.

Most people I know simply love their iPad despite initial misgivings or suspicions because it truly delivers a great experience.

I'd like to feel that way about Viewer 3.X too.

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