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Imagine, for a moment, that you’re sitting down for the first time with a new piece of software that you’ve not used before. One where you haven’t read the manual or just plain doesn’t have one – yes, I’m thinking about Second Life here.

Now, assuming a poor user-interface on that software, your reaction is generally going to fall into one of two broad groupings.

Group 1 thinks “This is stupid”; They hate the UI, for whatever reason, and assume that the software (in this case, the virtual world experience) is… well, rubbish. It’s a natural enough assumption, really. Since the UI mediates all of your interaction, it can’t get out of your way, and your frustration with it is projected straight through.

Group 2, on the other hand, can’t figure out what is going on. They can’t seem to connect what they’re seeing on the user-interface to the basic concept that they have of “virtual world”. They cannot mentally connect the user-interface to the ‘worldy’ concepts, and thus are unable to achieve agency. They kill the application, assuming that the problem is that they “don’t get it” – that this particular virtual world is too complex, intractable and geeky to be worth their while.

You’ve probably experienced the same sort of thing yourself, fiddling with the software for various alternative online venues.

And it’s nowhere near as simple as saying “Fix the UI!”

(I mean, that’s brilliant, right? Clearly nobody ever thought of that strategy before, or thought it was important if they had)

Seriously, if it was simple, Linden Lab would have had that nailed down years ago.

The answer isn’t simple. It isn’t obvious. It isn’t easy to do.

The Second Life viewer 1.x interface won various editorial awards in bygone years as among the very worst ever for PC software. The Second Life 2 interface doesn’t exactly seem to have improved anything, despite the amount of work, research, focus-groups and usability testing that went into it.

With the best will in the world, and millions of dollars in research and development, you can still wind up with Microsoft Bob.

Most of us at least, appear to be in a third group – because we’re still using the software. That doesn’t mean we actually have any idea on how to get it right. All we know is what we, as individuals, like and dislike – and that’s not nearly the same thing as having the first clue about building a good user-interface.

Otherwise we’d all be genius UI designers, with the only exceptions being the poor buggers who are making them now.

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