UI redesign

Every now and then the SL blogosphere creates a lot of buzz and interest around the topic of Second Life client UI redesign. I must say whenever the topic is mentioned I'm getting worried. Almost each time a change to the UI was introduced, it was for the worse (note I didn't say 'always').

I really wish Linden Lab stopped thinking about UI redesign and didn't listen to people who complain. I don't want an oversimplified UI design - it would be much more difficult to use because you'd have to SEARCH for every option, while now you just have them in the menu. Can you imagine Photoshop with four huge icons? And using those icons to find the options you need? I really don't want that to happen to Second Life viewer.

Right now people don't know what some of the options are for but they can test them once they become comfortable with the idea. If you hide the options, they won't even know they're available. Moreover, when they would want to find a certain option, they'd probably search the Internet and it would only make things more confusing ("What Advanced menu? I don't have it...").

People take part in UI redesign contests, blog their ideas and post pictures of proposed viewer appearances - and while some of their ideas are interesting, in most cases what I saw is quite scary. Huge icons filling half of the screen, CAPITALIZED menus, chaotic build menus, Advanced menu gone (I use it daily!), camera controls float which takes up 1/4 of the screen... OR there are also overly textified versions where half of the screen is filled with text. And I mean the little (like little little) text plus miniature icons, each one looking like a dot, or a blob in some cases. I saw weird and unnecessary tabs like Worn which is supposed to show what you are wearing (like I can't type 'worn' in the inventory search). I saw mini map changed into a radar thingie... Whyyy? Why would I want that? I want to see objects on mini map like I do now, with directions NW, N etc. It's a map, not a radar... please. I've also read some people want to remove the Notes from avatar's profiles. I use them frequently! I even use my own profile notes. I don't think they should be removed, actually I think they could be improved a bit (more space for notes, built-in search etc.). So with all those proposed changes I see more clicking, more searching, more time needed to learn! And less functionality, unfortunately.

I want the UI to take minimum screen space (but to be clear and legible at the same time) to have as much of the screen as possible for other uses. The current two bars on top and bottom are just perfect. Actually, the current SL interface is a lovely mix between functionality, usability, intuitive design and the calm blue color. Some minor changes could be made (more on that later) but a redesign is not needed.

I love this UI

The problem with SL interface is not really the interface itself. It's the people who use it. They don't look carefully, they don't follow the tutorials. If only people were willing to learn and to read with understanding, there would be no need to think about redesigning the UI. I don't want to grumble, I know these people are SL users too and it's important for designers to think about them. But it's important not to fall into extreme thinking as well. I know it's easy to criticise and you could say "make your own UI then"... but hey, didn't I say I don't want the interface redesign? Besides, residents are not usability experts, so I think they should have the ability to make their own skins (not only the colours but also the layout - like Winamp skins for example), but not influence the default look of the viewer.

I think it would be a good idea to make a newbie/light viewer for those less comfortable with advanced menus. I've also read somewhere about an idea of switching between three levels of interface, from an easy one, to a more sophisticated one. If you can make the third level look like the interface now, that solution is fine with me.

I also would like to say that good UI design is not all about the looks. The look IS important, but it's not the only thing the interface design is about. I don't really mind that the current SL buttons are not shiny (and I really like the way they look now). The menu is extremely intuitive (4 hours! come on! try to learn any other complex application in 4 hours) and that is what counts. Actually, shiny would be distracting (like the eye-dazzling Dazzle - it does have pretty buttons, but they are totally out-of-place in the viewer). What also counts is the efficiency - once familiarised with the menu, how fast we can do stuff. The viewer gets a pretty good score in this test, I think.

It seems that most UI redesign discussions focus on wrong issues as to what SL UI needs. When people state their needs, it's not required to do exactly what they say. What's needed is the answer to their requests, but not necessarily the way they imagined it. Jakob Nielsen (usability guru, very often quoted on my uni lectures) says you should pay attention to what people do, not what they say. How true is that? He actually wrote 10 usability heuristics and my favourite is the one that says you should let people choose instead of making them remember. I'm not saying everything should be visible (so it's OK to hide the Advanced menu for example). But don't hide the options that are needed just because they make menus a bit more complex.

Finally, I want to list the positive suggested changes - the ones I actually liked:
  • ability to copy, cut and paste in the inventory (Ctrl+C/Ctrl+X and Ctrl+V)
  • ability to relog without the need to close the viewer
  • ability to hide the "Release Keys" button
  • a drop down list of recently visited places (like a history of visited websites in a web browser)
  • a third tab in the inventory, called Favourites, listing items you marked as favourites (for items you use frequently)
  • ability to group people on the friends list into your own tabs
  • ability to set the range of the mini map (to more than one sim for example)
What I would also like to see introduced:
  • ability to find doubling items in the inventory (could be done by UUID)
  • ability to browse objects in the inventory by creator
  • ability to decide where to place the item you are given by another avatar (so that they don't go to the default folders but where you actually want them to go)
  • a Windlight preferred setting option in the Environment Settings menu - without the need to click your way through the Environment Editor OR/AND the ability to make your SL start with your preferred Windlight settings
  • a link provided with every error message that takes the user to the appropriate knowledge base article
  • undo inventory move - how many times have I accidentaly moved one folder into another and kept searching which one that was and where I've put it
  • marking recent items so that they don't show up anymore in Recent Items tab (sometimes there's too many recent items, and you might want to remove some this way)
  • ability to decide whether the viewer should auto-hide the Tools menu (according to JIRA, the menu won't be hiding anymore in 1.21, which would be just perfect)
  • ability to set IM autoresponder
  • ability to switch between different built-in follow cams
  • ability to add people to existing text and voice conferences (currently when someone crashes you need to re-start the conference for everyone)
Anyone has anything to add to the list? :)

3 Responses

  1. Daedalus Young on August 22, 2008 at 10:21 PM

    Yeah, I use the 'Notes' tab in Residents' profiles a lot too. For customer service, it's essential. In the past, I've been able to refund a customer who bought the same item twice, without realizing it themselves.

  2. Ayumi Cassini on September 7, 2008 at 9:26 PM

    Exactly, 'Notes' are a nice tool for business owners. I also use the notes to store friends birthdays ;) And I use my own profile notes to store things to do and other things I don't want to forget about.

  3. Len W. Brown on December 12, 2012 at 7:34 AM

    Although this article is four years old I felt driven to leave a comment. I absolute agree with everything you said in this article about the UI. Now that we are almost in 2013, going on five years since you posted this article, we are still experiencing the same problems.

    I discovered SL in the summer of 2005 and I was mesmerized. I remember constantly asking myself "how the heck did they build THAT?" over and over as I roamed around. It was driving me nuts because I so badly wanted to learn how to build things.

    One day, while reading on the SL Wiki, I came upon a basic tutorial and got my first taste of what a "prim" was and what I could do with it. When I began tinkering and noticed that I could follow an on-screen measuring tool that would "snap" my prims into perfect alignment, one word passed my lips: LEGO! I made the connection that day why building in SL seemed so peculiarly familiar to me. As a kid I played with LEGOs so much my parents were actually getting worried I wasn't getting enough fresh air - so I took my LEGOs outside and built with them under a shade tree. ;)

    Anyway, I'm rambling. My point is, the single most amazing part of SL back then was that I could build ANYTHING using only the tools built into the viewer. It seemed too good to be true. Of course, I still had to upload my own custom textures, but everything else "fit into place" so naturally. And I quickly found plenty of freebie places with more textures than I could ever need.

    I was deeply repulsed by sculpties when they began showing up. I've never quite figured that one out, but I hated them with a passion. Still do, and no matter where I'm at in SL you can probably hear me groan and grumble over Mesh now as well.

    Your how-to on tortured prims made my heart skip a beat (or two) and I recall saying out loud "I'm not the only person obsessed with pure prim design after all!"

    Like you, I was awestruck at so many incredible objects that were created using nothing other than default prims and a little texturing. It still blows me away.

    So thank you so, so, so much for your tortured prim article and for this one as well. I could not agree more with you about leaving things alone. I still refuse to use a new viewer, opting for an old version of Imprudence (1.4) as well as the SL client version 1.23. I dearly miss Emerald though, and was so angry about the whole backstory on why it ended up being banned from SL.

    Some things, like Meshes, appear as disgusting blobs when using an old viewer, but you know what? To me they are disgusting blobs even if I could see what they really looked like.

    Truth be told, I've turned into a very vocal advocate of OSGrid and Open Simulator and I run 25 regions on my own home server with virtually no lag. For free. If I paid the $295 a month that Linden Lab charge for single regions, that would cost me a whopping $7,375 a month for all 25!

    So yeah, I spend a lot of time building in my own private little virtual world, but continue to pop into SL a few times a week, usually just to fly around and get ideas for things I want to build in my private world.

    Long live the glorious prim!

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