Saturday, 2 February 2008

Linden Help Needs Help

Second Life journalist Wagner James Au recently wrote a blog post asking: Is Second Life's User Interface Cursed by Knowledge? He was referring to an inevitable Curse of Knowledge which affects experts in any field, preventing them from imagining what it is like to be a newcomer to that field. Wagner James Au suggests that the main reason Second Life loses so many new users is that the user interface is overly complex and confusing. But he doubts that either Linden Labs, or any developers working for them, will be able to improve the interface, because the curse of knowledge prevents them from understanding why the interface is hard for beginners to use.

As a beginner in Second Life, my initial reaction was somewhat different from what Wagner James Au describes. The interface struck me as being on a par with most software interfaces, neither better nor worse. What intimidated me more was to find myself suddenly immersed in a new public space, inhabited by other avatars, before I knew how to use the interface. I found Orientation Island poorly conceived, and struggled much longer than necessary "to get even minimally proficient," as Au puts it. But by far the greatest obstacle that I experienced had nothing to do with either the user interface or Orientation Island. What horrified me the most was to discover how useless the official Second Life tutorials and support systems are.

Consider the typical path a beginner might take in searching for written help. The natural place to start is the Second Life website. At the top of the main page are five headings, one of which is "support." The beginner thus clicks on "support" to open the Support Page.

This link takes a long time to open. When the support page finally comes up, one finds a central heading called "Locations for Support Information," under which is a promising link called "Knowledge Base and Solution Finder." Clicking on this link merely expands a paragraph that begins "We've created an extensive (and frequently updated) set of articles about Second Life," and ends with "You can log into this system by visiting the login form at the bottom of this page."

Wipe-out! Nothing drives a web surfer away like the requirement to login before you can read a page. Most surfers have to really, really want to read a page before they will take the time to fill out a login form. So you've lost most of them already.

Let us suppose that the user is sufficiently motivated to fill out this login form. Submitting the form opens a page which contains a number of links, including one called "Knowledge Base." Clicking on "Knowledge Base" opens a new window which is a marvel of poor design. I had to study this window for a long time before I discovered the drop-down menu hiding at the far left of the screen. When I finally got the knowledge base open, I found a sub-heading called "Controls and Getting Around," which seems aimed at beginners. Opening this sub-heading gives a three-page list of questions, of which the first ten questions are:

*Animation Guide
*Are you with CSI?
*Assorted Tips & Tricks - Video Tutorial
*How can I find a combat region?
*How do I change the time of day to something like sundown? It's a little too bright.
*How do I fly higher? I want to see what's on top of this building.
*How do I get the Near Me tab in the Communicate window to reappear if I delete it accidentally?
*How do I look at something from a different angle?
*How do I make it brighter? It's so dark I can't see anything.
*How do I open the Client (or Server) menu?

This is just a disorganized grab-bag of miscellaneous questions assembled in a haphazard fashion. I glanced at a few of them, and decided I was wasting my time. I moved off of the page in disgust, in search of something that might resemble a real tutorial.

Let's go back to the Second Life main page. At the bottom of this page there are numerous additional links. Those which seem possibly helpful to a beginner include: "FAQ," "Second Life Wiki," and "Tutorials." The FAQ are too short, and the Tutorials link goes to a set of videos. These videos may be of interest, but I skipped them as too time consuming. I'm looking for text I can navigate through quickly. So I went to the wiki.

The Main Page of the Official Second Life Wiki says nothing about tutorials. In boxes on the right-hand side of the page, however, the following two links caught my eye:

*LSL Portal - A (soon-to-be) complete reference guide to the LSL language.
*Creation Portal - Information about building and designing in Second Life.

It was too early for me to start building and designing: I just wanted basic information on using the interface. So I tried clicking on the LSL Portal. Fortunately I already knew that LSL means Linden Scripting Language - the LSL Portal page nowhere says what LSL means! The second paragraph on the LSL Portal page says:

"Want to learn LSL? Try one of the LSL Tutorials."

On the off-chance that I might find a beginner's guide there, I clicked on the link to open the LSL Tutorials page. On this page, at the top of the list of LSL tutorials, I finally found what seems to be a tutorial for beginning Second Life users, called Getting Ready to learn LSL. However, a quick glance reveals how inadequate this strange document is. Consider for example the text of section 3, "Learn how to really move around," which goes as follows:

"Learn how to really move around. We next learned how to 'walk', to 'sit', to 'stand up', to 'fly'. We learned how to 'search' for 'places' and how to 'teleport'. That was learning enough to begin exploring. We also learned how to use vehicles and drive around."

The above paragraph apparently describes the training that the new avatar goes through on Orientation Island. It thus makes no pretence to serve as an actual tutorial.

Let's go back once more to the Main Page of the Second Life Website. Looking again at the links at the top of the page, this time we will select the link called "Community." On the Community Page, in the vertical menu running down the left side of the page, is a link to the forum. The beginner clicks on the link to open the forum page, and finds this message: "You must log in to view the Second Life forums."

You must log in just to read the forums! Why is this? I can understand having to log in to contribute to the forums. But what sensitive confidential information do the forums contain that must be hidden from the public eye?

Oh well, the beginner says, let me log in so I can read the forums. But when I logged in to Second Life, and tried again to look at the forums, I still got the page with the following message:

"If you receive this error after successfully logging in to other parts of the Second Life website, please make sure that:
*You have logged in to Second Life at least once with your account.
*You have valid payment info on file for your account, if your account was created after August 20, 2006. You can update your payment information here. You don't need to have a Premium account."

In fact, to get permission to look at the forum, I had to send an email to the support team. I received from them a special password to open my access. A few days after launching the request, I was finally able to search the forums. But a forum is probably the least efficient of all possible ways to find a useful response to a specific question. People search through forums when all else has failed, because sometimes, after great expenditure of time and effort, you may finally find what you were looking for. But anyone who has ever searched for help on a forum knows that a forum is no substitute for a tutorial or an on-line help.

There remains In-World Help. The user interface includes a drop-down Help menu. The first item on this menu, "Second Life Help/F1," only sends you to the support website mentioned above. The second item, "In-World Help," opens a little window that says "For instant help on dozens of topics, simply press the F1 key!" It also suggests visiting Orientation Island and Help Island. But whenever you touch the F1 key, you just get sent back to the hopeless support website.

There is however a nifty feature in the In-World Help window. If you click on the "Home" button, you get - Google in an in-world window! I was thrilled to discover this way of consulting internet from within Second Life. But by sending us to Google, the Linden Labs Help function seems to be admitting that, to find help with Second Life, the best bet is - to look elsewhere.


Sleazy Writer said...

Yeah, the need to log in for the Knowledge Base and the need to even have payment info on file for simple forums (!!!) ... it annoyed the hell out of me!

dyerbrookME said...

I know the Lindens are trying, but my God, it's just taking forever.

A simple thing like 20 FAQs that have the most simple problems addressed is absent from the website, and impossibly hard to find with the knowledge base.

I have a card called "Getting Started in Second Life" with the first six things I feel you need to know -- and they aren't building and scripting and where to find tutorials. They are much more basic.

For awhile, this was even linked on the SL site, it may still be there, but that's hilarious, the Lindens should write something like this.

I can understand the annoyance with logging into the forums to read, but it may not be possible to have a log-in just to write, but not just to read. And this was likely put in to stop the stream of sock puppets.