Much has been written about the ‘first hour experience’ of Second Life and how to make it more accessible to new users. There seems to be a common consensus amongst residents and Lindens alike that SL is a complicated thing to get your head around and the experience needs to be simplified if it’s not going to put people off before they’ve had a chance to experience something there that pulls them back. Accordingly, the strategy over the last few years appears to have focused on two areas: (1) try to make initial orientation as simple and as painless as possible, and (2) get people to where they want to go as quickly as possible. Both of these objectives appear to make sense. The degree to which they’ve been successful, however, is less clear. I’m not a close follower of this aspect of SL, but it’s a pretty common assumption held in the blogosphere that SL’s membership plateaued many years ago, despite several changes of approach to the first hour. Furthermore, as I’ve taken a number of new avatars through the initial orientation process myself over the years, it seems to me that the process has become less rather than more straightforward – that is, until the most recent ‘desert island’ experience, where tuition appears to have been abandoned completely.
The latest to jump into this issue is the Firestorm team, with new marketing manager Canary Beck hoping to improve on Linden’s own retention figures through a more streamlined joining process that combines a number of elements. First, following a survey of over 3,000 residents, six popular areas of SL useage have been identified: roleplay, decorating/design, socialising, exploring, creating and music. Web pages have been created for each of these areas, with each one giving clear and simple information about it, and a big ‘sign up’ button. The sign-up process is then your proposed username, your password, your email and your birthday, and that’s it. The next screen after that signposts how to download the Firestorm viewer. When you later enter your new ID into Firestorm, SL detects you as a Firestorm-registered new resident and directs you to an orientation island set up by the Firestorm team rather than the current default Linden experience.
There were a couple of teething issues with the web pages when I tried out the sign-up process, but nothing that can’t be sorted out. I thought the pages for the six areas were stunning in their design and clarity, using bold presentation principles and beautiful imagery. I loved the idea of the testimonials at the bottom of each of these, however I dislike that at present they’re not real: it is explained at the bottom in small, light grey text that “the consumers above are not actual consumers of the advertised product” so it’s not quite a lie, but this sort of thing is a real turn-off for me and leaves me feeling manipulated, even though the intention – to present information from the perspective of a service user – is a very good one. With any luck, these will be replaced with genuine statements from real residents in the future. In fact, since I wrote that last sentence yesterday, a new project has been started up by Becky on the Firestorm blog to do exactly this. Excellent.
Onto the orientation experience. The first thing you have to do when you log in for the first time is select a gender for your avatar; once that’s done, either the basic male or female from several years ago rezzes. It’s been commented on by others that new residents should have more choice of avatar appearance more early on than this, but actually I think a simple avatar to begin with is the right approach to take and possibly consistent with research that more choice in certain contexts can result in less engagement. Perhaps a message that this is a very basic avatar which can be changed later on might assuage any concerns that arise from unfavourable comparisons to the avatars seen in the sign-up pages earlier.
So you rez on a sim-sized island, and what then takes place is a sequence of good, old-fashioned skills tasks. This gets a big thumbs up from me, because I always felt that this was an aspect of the original experience that was never really broken. I did my first ever induction at Linden’s ‘Orientation Island’ many years ago, and I found the process there straightforward and fun. I can imagine that some people might have found it considerably more difficult than I did, but it’s worth considering three key factors before deciding that the process used is itself at fault, namely:
- Lag. Sorry, but I’ve always thought this policy of not mentioning lag because there’s nothing you can do about it to be ridiculous, especially if it results in people blaming other, perfectly fine elements for low engagement. If a new user encounters a world of grey, that’s going to be an issue for them.
- The public nature of the tasks. When I landed on Linden’s Orientation Island, there were several people clustered around that point, talking, filling my screen with text. I immediately wanted privacy to do all my initial fumbling around in. As you become more experienced in SL, you grow to realise that most things you do are ignored by the vast majority of the people around you, but that’s not how it feels to the uninitiated.
- The order and sequencing of the tasks. As any good educator knows, a series of brilliantly devised learning activities can fall flat on their face completely if not presented in a developmentally appropriate sequence – or, to put it another way, don’t try to teach new residents to fly before they can walk.
The skills at FS orientation island seem to be broken down and sequenced very well to begin with. You follow the footpath and encounter a number of signs giving information and presenting associated learning tasks. Basic arrow key movement is covered first, followed by jumping, flying, sitting and camming (the camming activity is a brilliant idea, but even with my nine years of SL experience, I couldn’t get close to finding those frogs using only the keyboard camming methods described: what’s missing is a sign on how to Alt-click). There’s then a section on communication that includes conversation with a Firebird that’s reminiscent of the parrot at the original Orientation Island. There’s also information on IM-ing, voice and friendship here, plus a great little section on SL etiquette with some really simple and straightforward tips. Next we have land classification followed by inventory. Up to this point – about the halfway mark – it all seems very well thought out.
Things start to get more complicated now, however. The next section is about appearance, and it starts by directing you to edit your shape and then presenting a series of male and female tailors’ dummies that have no apparent function other than to show you some examples of male and female torsos. The clear, each-step-building-on-the-last nature of previous instructions disappears and suddenly the signs seem to contain random pieces of information or instruction: after the tailors’ dummies, for example, a sign tells you that the ‘Add more’ button can be used to add items to an outfit – but no previous information has been given on what an outfit is in the first place. In fact, no information has been given at all on wearables, with the section after this then introducing the topic of buying stuff, with a rather messy freebies tent offering an assortment of items. Do we really want new residents’ first experience of clothes buying to be the SL equivalent of a yard sale?
I think the order should be (1) an introduction to clothing and other wearable things (freebies could be given out by various signs with instructions such as ‘Touch this sign for a hairstyle and then wear it’), (2) an introduction to outfit folders, (3) possibly a short section on shape changing (though I would personally make this topic a candidate for an ‘advanced level’ – when do we actually mess around with our shape settings these days other than to make a piece of clothing fit better?) and then (4) an introduction to shopping for clothes… leading onto shopping for other objects such as furniture and housing.
Anyway, after that, it’s back to things being done well again. A single sign with some example prims introduces the concept of building – perfect, we don’t need more than this at this stage – and then information on sound and media is presented, followed by teleportation and landmarks. A couple more signs round off your trip around the island and then you enter a portal that takes you to the Firestorm support sim, a very pretty forest and beach region with a number of buildings for classes and socialising. I was approached there within a couple of minutes by a friendly helper enquiring if there was anything she could do to help me. In the days of my own induction, Orientation Island was followed by Help Island, and I actually spent several days there before taking the plunge and teleporting to the mainland; Help Island was a perfectly fine place to reside, but Firestorm Support is visually beautiful in a way that Help Island just wasn’t: the combination of experiencing something totally new and experiencing something visually arresting is a potent mix, and I can imagine future residents encountering this sim as part of their induction thinking back on that time in later years as an almost magical period of discovery, a bit like a childhood holiday. Good.
As an overall experience, then, I found the Firestorm approach to recruitment and induction a highly satisfactory one that only really needs tweaking in a few areas. It’s good to see such a transparently evidence-informed process being put together. It’s also an evolving piece of work, and the team appear open to constructive feedback and developing the process further. The only bit that felt missing to me was something at the end which linked back to the area of SL activity followed in the first place. The area I chose was ‘creating’; it might be nice to find a creating-themed area in the final sim – perhaps a small building or zone could be put together for each of the areas – where I might learn more about this area of SL experience. It could be kept up-to-date with posters for various groups/sims/courses and associated landmarks.
Want to do your bit to promote SL? Why not promote one of the six beautiful Firestorm pages in your RL social media? This won’t give away your SL identity (if that’s something you keep private), and surely it has to portray you in a better light to your friends and family than all those share-if-you-agree-that-everything-today-is-shit images that they post all the time.
In the meantime, I now have a brand new avatar to play with. Actually, I have a few ideas for this one. I might write more about its adventures in the coming weeks.