Popularity and the official SL viewer

In commenting on Firestorm’s achievements, Wolf Baginski asked a question about the popularity of official SL viewer:

From my POV, while I am glad I made the effort to shift from Phoenix to Firestorm, I would say there is an argument here which is missing their main point. 

Just what is wrong with the Linden Viewer UI?

What spoiled it for me was the jump from V1 to V2. Linden V1 has a range of colour schemes. V2 appeared in Beta with a rather dull set of colours, which I found difficult to use. I set out my reasons for wanting to see the same sort of choices that V1 had, and when that sort of choice appeared, I found I had to rely on a third-party developer, who had to repeat and test the work every time the Viewer was upgraded by Linden Labs.

Now they’re on V3, but I’ve never bothered to try it out. The Firestorm crew do a good job, and you can find these guys in-world. They’re people who take the trouble to use their Avatars. There are Lindens like that but, to be honest, I wouldn’t want Torley to be responsible for colour choices in the UI. Might not be the UI design… Maybe the question is, why don’t we feel safe with the Linden Viewer?

I’m not sure I share the contention that people don’t “feel safe” with the official viewer (not liking it is not the same as not feeling safe with it), although I do agree that people may well have a trust issue around LL (something I’ll  to come back to). However, Wolf’s question in interesting, as it actually touches on elements of the Lab / user dynamic that go beyond the viewer itself – or at least it set me off thinking in that direction, as well as a number of others; so much so that as I attempted to reply to his comment with my thoughts, I found them growing to essay length proportions. Rather then end up with a huge splurge in the comments section of a blog post, I decided it might be better to give my thoughts a post of their own.

It’s About the Options

Whatever its flavour, the official viewer has always been regarded by many SL users as a poor offering. Back in the days of Viewer 1.x, for example, we had Nicholaz’ Viewer, the RLV .EXE for the official viewer, Cool Viewer and Rainbow Viewer. Of course, we also had the infamous Emerald Viewer. Of them all, the latter probably lead to an explosion in TPV use, with people opting for the huge spread of options and innovative approaches to the UI that made their in-world experience easier and more informative. It also, it’s fair to say, paved the way for Phoenix’s huge success when shenanigans from within brought an end to Emerald in Second Life.

Even today, the major reason for the adoption of TPVs has little to do with the UI presentation and issues therein or with any matters of trust where LL is concerned. It comes down to a simple matter of the range of additional options and capabilities presented to the user in a TPV when compared to the official viewer.

The Failure of Viewer 2.0

The real problems for LL’s own viewer really began with Viewer 2.0 and broader matters occurring before and during the launch period, as summarised below.

Poor UI Implementation

Viewer 2.0: usability issues galore

The UI design was bad, period. Not only were there issues with the colour scheme and issues with the font style (which many with eyesight problems reported as being hard to read), and in the use of toasties / chiklets, etc., –  it was simply horribly unsettling to use.

The most obvious examples of this were the original sidebar, which rudely shunted the world-view off to the left rather than functioning as an overlay, what far too large and intrusive and included a series of eye-distracting side tabs jutting into the right side of the screen, and the bizarre decision to split up the camera controls into mutually exclusive panes on the same floater. Neither of these were destined to find favour with established users, and LL were to prove equally unwilling to accept this.

Setting False Expectations

An image from Massively’s sneak peek at “SL 2.0” (credit: Massively / Tateru Nino) – click to enlarge

Prior to V2.0 appearing, a lot of false expectations were set as to what it would be. Not all of these were LL’s fault, in fairness. Some, however, were. In late 2009, LL allowed Massively a sneak peek at various elements of the “new” viewer, which largely received positive feedback from users.

Such was the buzz about the new approach, LL actually issued what amounted to a warning statement shortly after Massively published the piece, stating: “What we ship later this year will be very different from what appeared in that post. We’ll share a sneak peek of the “real” Viewer 2009 later in the year, with plenty of time to receive and incorporate feedback before the final iteration ships.

Not only did the Massively sneak peek present a UI that was reasonably familiar – and comforting – to users, it also offered insight into new and useful functionality which ended up being tossed aside prior to the release of the “finished product”.

Thus, and despite issuing their cautionary response to the Massively article, LL had managed to tweak people’s expectations: we were going to get a viewer that looked something like V1; it was going to have cool additional features we’ve been looking for. What’s more, and as shown in the Massively article, there was even going to be a fairly simply UI skin that would potentially be easier on the eye for those with vision impairments.

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