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Now that the newly-minted Linden Lab CEO, Rod Humble, is not quite so much “the new guy” as he was the first time that I interviewed him, I’ve been nosing around the PR corner of Linden Lab to see if I could get him back for a second round.

While there was a lot of calendar juggling involved, Humble and Peter Gray (Linden Lab’s PR manager) managed to find a little time in a busy schedule for us to get together and talk.

On this occasion – though I didn’t have as much time as I would have preferred – we were able to go in-world into Second Life and talk in real-time, reclining in some beach-side deck-chairs; a pleasantly non-businesslike setting. During the course of things, we got just a little distracted here and there, on some fascinating topics which I very much hope to revisit in future, but the core focus of the discussion was about usability.

Usability is one of the three drums that Humble has been beating since he settled into the big chair at the Lab: Service, usability and lag. Usability is one of the most interesting ones, since many times in the past it hasn’t been clear whether Linden Lab even thinks of usability in the same terms as the rest of us.

So, that’s where we began…

Speaking as a user, quite often I’ve been moved to wonder whether the Lab defines ‘usability’ in the same sort of way as the rest of us.

RH: Sure, well I suppose it’s a philosophy. And it’s that Second Life is magic, but Second Life stops it being magic.

That might sound a bit weird, but let me elaborate. There is so much in SL that I adore and so much of it seems just out of reach. Either by UI, or service or a lack of seamlessness.

So in general, I want to make it all just work and work well. That’s usability in my view. So it’s a broad term.

Making it do what it says on the tin?

RH: Yeah, exactly.

To me, Second Life is endlessly fascinating. The people and the creations, the serendipitous encounters and all of that. It just seems like you slam into a wall just about every time you turn around, or try to take a step.

RH: Yes, that’s exactly it. And when one of those walls is removed it just feels like a Summer breeze. Everything feels better. So I know its getting a little tedious by now when I keep harping on about service, usability and lag. Its all a part of the same thing in my view. I want to get all that working and do it this year.

The other part is new users. Poor usability hurts us all because it stops a significant number of new people joining and trying it out….

New users keep us all going.

“it killed me seeing thousands of people every week simply fail to even get to meet anybody in-world, or even move one meter”

RH: Yeah they do, and the number of new users we get trying Second Life is amazingly high compared even to large MMOs. There is something about Second Life that is evergreen – it’s truly stunning – so it killed me seeing thousands of people every week simply fail to even get to meet anybody in-world, or even move one meter.

Some fell at registration (that’s better now). Some fell at navigation (that’s a bit better now). Many still fall at finding anything to do that they want. That’s the next focus.

Although I will say even though it may not show up as big numbers on concurrency, a larger number of those new users are already sticking, which is nice to see. It shows that we can move the dial.

Basic Mode is a part of that.

RH: Right now Basic Mode is deliberately a separate thing so it can iterate very, very fast without impacting the full viewer. But that’s changing fairly soon, I think, when they become integrated.

Better integration of basic/advanced mode in future iterations – so we won’t have to restart the viewer to switch between them?

RH: Yes, that’s correct. Ideally it should be seamless. Even more ideally it should just add and remove elements as you need them. And have a intuitive layout. That’s a bigger issue, though.

You know I’m going to have to bring up the Viewer 2.x UI – and also that Viewer 2.x seems to be unaccountably slower than 1.23 was, with identical settings – you didn’t really come in until 1.23 was already gathering dust a shelf somewhere.

Sluggish is the word that comes to mind, compared to the late 1.x codebase, at least on many systems.

RH: Ah, I didn’t know that. I will ping folks and see what i can dig up. No reason we should ask folks to use something slower that’s for sure.

As for the UI layout, it is… well… to be changed 🙂

Which leads to the question… how, exactly, do you evaluate potential changes to the UI?

RH: Right now the process is simply finding very obvious things that most intelligent people would find unintuitive or burdensome. I admit that’s a stop-gap measure.

More long-term when it comes to actually add things and hopefully increasing features? I don’t know. My instincts are to solicit a lot of feedback, then go quiet and implement, then return for further feedback. But I am open to other approaches. With search for example the team did a bunch of AB testing which was handy.

How do you see third-party viewers fitting into that ecosystem? I mean, is the widespread use of TPVs a good thing for Second Life and the Lab, or is it a sign that the official viewer isn’t currently meeting the needs of many users?

I think our friends who work on 3rd party viewers are an asset to usability.

Second Life has many features, and I think it’s wonderful that our many different kinds of users can have options in how this kind of thing is presented.

My opinion is that the transition of code bases has been rough over the past year or so. My hope is that by the end of this year that transition will be mainly behind us and the focus can be on expanding a unified code base that benefits all our customers.

Are there any usability items tentatively slated for… oh, say by the end of the quarter?

RH: Oh a bunch! 🙂

I think the next thing you will see from us are a much improved login screen, new newbie avatars and chat fixes – I run into group chat issues every week. Today in fact.

That obviously needs to be fixed. I’m not going to commit to dates just yet though. I hate disappointing people.

That’s all we had time for, but I’m hoping to follow up with Humble on service and lag in the coming weeks.

As I mentioned, there was quite a bit of ancillary chatter in addition to what you see here, and I came away with a better understanding of the Lab’s new CEO, and his drive to overhaul the more delinquent aspects of the Second Life service. I get the feeling that Humble isn’t just gunning for the low-hanging fruit, as the Lab has done traditionally, but is determined to tackle the hard, awkward stuff, whatever it takes.

And that’s a good feeling. Given more time and future occasions, there’s so much more that I would like to interview him about.

Since the beginning of Humble’s tenure, the Lab seems to be accomplishing more and faster than I can recall it ever doing. Not entirely without its problems, to be sure, but things sure are happening, as the Lab seems to be ploughing its way through long lists of delinquent tasks and feature-requests at an unprecedented rate.

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

Win or lose, Humble doesn’t seem satisfied with the Lab just continuing to do what it has always done, and I think many of us would agree with him there.

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