In a previous article I described what I refer to as "Second Life Ergonomics". It's all about the appropriate design of virtual structures to make it easy for avatars to use and enjoy. My main complaint is that many builders tend to build virtual structures using real-life ergonomic considerations, and fewer realize that avatars have significantly different characteristics that must be accounted for.
Here are a few tips that I have learned during my brief virtual existence (well, brief except for last week when I was online for far too many hours!) This list is certainly not exhaustive - I am thinking of new ideas all the time, and I am positive there many great ideas I have yet to learn.
Phantom Objects - On those days when it's really hard to turn, walk and especially precisely navigate through a crowded area, it's really annoying to get hung up on items in your way. Yes, I know you should walk around them - but sometimes you just can't.
- TIP: Unless the object has some physical purpose make it phantom. That way the object cannot interfere with an avatar's motion, but still adds to the visual effect. Don't phantomize objects that require physical characteristics, such as furniture to sit on or ramps to walk up.
Solid Objects - I can't stand it when I am trying to walk along a narrow path and end up falling off the side, sometimes to my virtual death. Why does this happen? Because the builder didn't account for the sloppy avatar movements.
- TIP: When ever there is a danger of falling, place some kind of solid object to prevent disaster. Avatars need railings, walls or even a slight hump sometimes to channel their movement and overcome occasional inadequate navigation. Even a transparent barrier would be helpful and not interfere with the visual effect. It's quite simple, really - just assume all your visitors are drunk and stumbling around!
Head Space: All avatars by default have their camera position behind and above them. That way you can see exactly what your virtual counterpart is doing, and with whom. Unless, that is, there is a wall or roof in your way. Cramped quarters are really difficult to deal with, especially if the Grid is laggy.
- TIP: Building material is free in Second Life: you can afford to have taller rooms that accommodate the normal camera position. Make rooms with very tall ceilings. Or better yet, don't have any ceilings! In some cases, even walls aren't really necessary.
Curves: The last time I looked, my keyboard did not include a curved arrow. That's why I have a lot of trouble walking accurately along curved walkways. Avatars can most easily walk straight, but curves are harder to follow. Spiral staircases are the worst, and few can successfully navigate them without bumping into the walls or falling off.
- TIP: Don't build curves for avatars to traverse. Do build curves for avatars to admire.
Dexterity: While it is easy to click with a mouse, it's difficult to do so when you must do so precisely. A vending machine with tiny buttons is not good, since it becomes very easy for someone to push the wrong buttons. Misdirected clicks often happens on websites, and it happens in Second Life too.
- TIP: Click areas should be sufficiently large to avoid any confusion with neighboring buttons. This is especially important for buttons that perform actions that count - like paying money or ejecting that annoying person from your land. Use contrasting colors to ensure they stand out and are identifiable.
Smell and Taste: As I said in the previous ergonomic post, thankfully these senses are not yet implemented in Second Life. I can imagine what some people might do if they were. But how can you reasonably approximate these senses?
- TIP: Since smell and taste are absent, you must use a visual experience to hint or remind visitors of smells and tastes. Appropriate images, carefully chosen particle effects, sounds and textures can sometimes convey a message of smell and taste.
Item Layout: Upon entering a store or gallery, experienced avatars simply stay put and motor their camera around to check out the wares. Unfortunately, most younger avatars (and even some old ones) are poor camera drivers. Instead of camming they move their avatar around the area, turning and pausing to examine every item one by one. They walk, turn, tilt, examine. Then repeat. And again. How many times must they do this? Sometimes once for every item in the store or gallery. This is at least tedious and sometimes frustrating when the lag demons are prowling.
- TIP: Make items big enough to see clearly (especially product boxes or photo displays), but not so big as to cause enormous amounts of walking and turning.
- TIP2: Consider displaying items in a circle or semi-circle, where the avatar needs only rotate to easily view a lot of items. I use this technique at my store, and it has proven quite successful. Even better, it really isn't that difficult to build.
Wide Size: Yes, I know the diving board ladder looks realistic, but it is a huge pain in the a** to line up your avatar precisely so that when you go up, you don't fall off. Similarly, smaller doorways are often hard to get through, especially if you have a larger avatar.
- TIP: Assume that avatars are large and size things accordingly. Also assume that it is hard to navigate precisely, so don't make things very narrow if you expect avatars to use them. Use invisible railings or equivalent if there is danger of falling off.
Colors and Textures: Avatars have relatively poor eyesight. They often cannot see distances clearly and even up close they can't make out details unless they are able to zoom in. Also, sometimes poor graphics capability means they can see only a limited amount of textures.
- TIP: Try to minimize the number of textures in use, so that once a texture is loaded, it is rapidly displayed on all applied surfaces. If you use many different textures, visiting avatars will spend a long time rezzing all the textures and generally experience local slow downs.
And those are some ergonomic tips for you. As I learn more, I'll post a follow up article with new ones in the future. Good luck with your build!