Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Churn baby, churn

A few well known Second Life bloggers recently weighed in with ideas to improve the virtual world's stagnant growth rate:
  • Dusan Writer launched an 800,000L$ "newbie viewer" creation contest. He sees the current interface as the key one cause of the problem.
  • Grace McDunnough proposed an AI trainer corp to guide newbies' first steps. She believes lack of guidance is the main issue.
  • Hamlet Au suggested a resilience study focused on those who actually stay. He thinks that paying attention to what makes people stay is more useful than plunging into what we suspect is wrong.
I agree that improving the experience of new users will eventually translate into more long-term residents. It’s a wonder anyone makes it to their first rezday. Orientation Island sucks. The learning curve is as steep as Everest. It’s hard to find help when you get stuck. The search engine provides almost no qualitative guidance. The client and grid are unstable. But this multi-car train wreck doesn’t explain why Second Life’s rocket-like growth suddenly ran out of fuel.

Growth Rate

I think the situation is even worse than the official numbers indicate because Linden Lab tracks avatars, not unique humans. Their data indicates about half a million active users. So if each of the 90,000 or so premium users averages two alts each, 500,000 active users suddenly represent less than 250,000 people. Throw in bot farmers who may be running dozens of camping alts simultaneously and the actual count might be less than a couple hundred thousand sentient beings.

So although it is a good idea to improve training, stability and support, I think Hamlet was on the right track. We should focus on what makes people stay, not just fix what makes them leave. You can’t improve someone's user experience if they never log in. Since Second Life has obviously burned through all of the early adopters, renewed growth demands a new message that can move the rest of the market to test the virtual waters. Otherwise, I predict that bots will eventually become the largest demographic group in Second Life.

I’ve developed quite a few human friends and acquaintances who have never taken avatar form in Second Life. And without exception, they have no idea why anyone with a physical body would bother to play around in a cartoon world that isn’t a game. Except maybe for the virtual sex. It’s not surprising that virtual virgins don’t see the point. Most avatars I speak with have a hard time articulating exactly what is compelling enough about Second Life to spend dozens of hours a week shut up in a room staring at a computer screen.

I've leave it here for today. Stay tuned for part two later this week.


Dusan Writer said...

I appreciate the link and am impressed with how many fine minds are looking at the issues related to retention....of course, we can leave attraction to later, when the grid is more stable and CSI wants to come back. :)

However, I would like to clarify. I DON'T actually think the UI is the main reason. I think it's multi-faceted. In my opinion, the UI should be more complicated than it is, but I've bowed to the concept of others that a simpler viewer should be an option for new users or those who want to visit for an education or other event, with the hopes they'll come back.

In my opinion, SL is about the tools - and the tools need enhancing rather than needing stuff stripped away, but that's just one man's view.

I'm also of the opinion that avatar creation and tutorials should happen external to the Grid, that there should be more robust integration with Web services, that orientation island should be killed, and that M chose a dumb name, but hey, I always have a lot of floaty random thoughts.

Having said all that, the purpose of the UI contest is to see if we can't generate some discussion, insight, and who knows, more than one or two great ideas. An improved UI won't keep people, but it will remove one of several barriers.

Thanks for this post - it really is a reminder that the community has passion and insight, and I'm all for tapping into that and working however we can to show the miracle of SL to a wider world.

Botgirl Questi said...

dusan: Sorry about that. I just changed "the main cause" to "one cause" in the text.

I'm touched and impressed by your willingness to contribute time and money to promote the generation of positive ideas and activity.

I agree with you about including external training materials. I think some people view immersion in a kind of religious manner. But as a trainee, being immersed in frustration kinda defeats the purpose.

An organization contacted me for advice on a pilot program for employees in Second Life. My first recommendation was for them to start with two days of classroom training to get neophytes over the hump of the learning curve.

I think everyone agrees that fixing the client and grid stability issues are an urgent priority. Beyond that, it depends on one's perception of the purpose of Second Life. That's what I plan to focus on in the next post here.

Thanks for your great comment. And especially for not flaming me for misrepresenting your position. :)