Like many utopian visions, Second Life was uncompromising in its laissez-faire approach. The virtual world was launched as a platform that allowed users to do pretty much whatever they pleased, which made it difficult to explain to the uninitiated.
Now, the venue is seeking to reach a wider audience through enhanced usability, helping new visitors quickly learn the ropes and enticing them to probe more deeply once they've become acclimated. Second Life's first attempt to accomplish these goals is a new home page that's already generated big bumps in exploration once users are "in world," according to the company.
Second Life rode the Silicon Valley hype cycle. It was lionized as the hot Web company of 2006, plastered on the cover of Businessweek, with brands like Adidas, American Apparel and Dell rushing in to set up outposts. Then, just as quickly, Second Life became passé and shorthand for over-hyped technology.
The key problem: Second Life is hard to use and disorienting for rookies. The virtual world's developer Linden Lab aimed to make fixes. Philip Rosedale, the company's technologist CEO, moved aside and Linden hired Mark Kingdon, formerly CEO of digital agency Organic and a longtime champion of using personas to push Web usability. The company then hired New York digital agency Big Spaceship to fix its usability problems.
"Second Life is trying to create a better user experience so they can expand their residents beyond the alphas, the early adopters," said Matt Rosenberg, evp of client engagement at Big Spaceship. "It has to make sense to a regular, non-tech person in order to grow."
To be sure, Second Life is still notching growth by some measures. The virtual world reports the time residents spent "in world" in 2008 rose 61 percent from 2007. And it made a 31 percent gain in peak concurrent users over the previous year.
Still, the service's growth is not as meteoric as it once was, said Linden chief product officer Tom Hale. The key to reigniting interest is to broaden its appeal.
The Second Life home page, where visitors download the software, was recently overhauled. The original version featured generic graphics and details of what users should expect. What it lacked, according to Rosenberg, was "context." Visitors can now scroll through 36 Flash vignettes of experiences available in the virtual world. For example, "Explore" displays the ability to visit pyramids and "Dance" shows avatars getting down at one of Second Life's many nightclubs.
Early results are promising, said Hale. Users entering through the new home page, which went live on Christmas Eve, are more likely to come back and spend additional time in the virtual world. He attributes that to their enhanced understanding of what to do when they get there.
The next step in making Second Life more usable is to add some in-world hand-holding. According to Hale, Second Life's hands-off approach has a downside: it doesn't create context for neophytes. The company is fixing that by directing new users to locations and activities that match their interests and connecting them with like-minded residents.
"Our responsibility is to help people get into the world and get acclimated," Hale said.