Second Life's role in usability testing

Usability testing is an expensive process. But what if virtual worlds could make it faster and easier? Ian Yates goes all 3D on us to explain the idea.

 When you need to find out how users will react to your latest whiz-bang application of website you hire usability testers. This costs lots of money because they have to invite lots of users to visit their labs and sit in front of your code to see how they like it. What if there was a better way? What if there was a virtual way?

Digital services company Hyro reckons there is, so they opened up a Digital Platform Usability Testing Services lab in Second Life. Hyro’s Gary Bunker explains their strategy.

Gary Bunker (GB): We had some ideas about what we could do with user research looking at where to grow and looking at new technology and we decided to focus on Second Life.

Ian Yates (IY): How is that going to actually work?

GB: It’s going to work extremely well. If you consider how we research users right now, generally the best way to do so is to sit in a room with them and talk to them and ask some questions and get them to observe and interact with an interface and see how that works.

But quite often that’s just not feasible, particularly working with clients who have an international project or a national need to research users. We obviously can’t be with everyone at every time. This allows us to talk to users in lots of different locations without actually needing to be there with them.

IY: Okay, now that does sound like a good idea and of course you could do that in the past if you set up a lot of expensive software and systems yourself but you’re riding on the coattails of Second Life which is already there.

GB: That’s right and what we’ve found is that particularly clients themselves are already aware of Second Life and they’re quite interested in looking at the research from that environment. One of the key questions we wanted to know was would commercial customers trust the results.

There is obviously no point in us running this research and talking to users inside Second Life if their results are going to be dismissed. So one thing we wanted to understand is, is this commercially viable from that perspective? And if the answer was yes, clients are quite interested.

We ran some comparative tests and one of the very first things we did was run some research in a room. We sat down with users and took them through a model design and asked them a number of questions.

We then ran an international Second Life research session which was pretty much a mirror of the real world session working with some users in Australia and some in the UK all in one room together at the same time. We found that we got pretty much exactly the same results and the same findings.

We were able to show that this research does work extremely well and it can be commercially viable.

IY: That’s fascinating isn’t it? Do you think we could nip into Second Life and see who is going to win this contest on Saturday?

GB: Given the recent issue with the number of trends on MySpace, I’m not quite sure that that would be the best approach but it would certainly be interesting to try wouldn’t it?

IY: Do you think perhaps that sort of technology is going to end up in the mainstream areas like political polling in the near future then?

GB: I think absolutely it is. We’ve actually had some interest from government sectors and from government clients who are interested in reaching out to a younger audience who are primarily already on the web and much of that audience is working inside virtual worlds and virtual games.

This is a way to engage with people in a way that they feel much more comfortable to sit down and talk to you rather than meeting you on the street or shaking hands, pumping hands on a street corner. It’s a way that they can engage on a one to one level with a larger audience and people do trust it as a forum, as a way of engaging and interacting with others.

So I personally feel that this is going to become a much bigger part of how we work with users, how we work with our customers and citizens and with each other.

IY: Well that means those that don’t think it’s going to work are probably just too old to get it I guess.

GB: Well sometimes you’d be surprised who you find inside Second Life. I was actually quite surprised to find my own mother hanging around with Second Life and creating an Avatar.

I think there is – to some degree there is a small generational issue there that some people just won’t feel comfortable working in that environment. But looking at – we’ve already had some research where we had to engage with an older audience, a 30 to 45 age bracket and had absolutely no problems finding people inside Second Life who fell into that age range and into the demographic we were looking for.

So even though I think there is quite a strong skew for a younger audience, it is still quite valid.

IY: Yes and I guess when it all comes down to sampling anyway, as long as there is the right sample you’ll still represent the overall picture.

GB: That’s right and although there are some behavioural differences inside Second Life or inside any virtual environment but for the most part people do react in a relatively normal way.

There has been some interesting psychology research in terms of how people respond to behaviour, body language and personal space and facial responses inside a virtual environment as to how they would respond in a real world environment. The research is generally finding that the behaviour is very much the same.

So people do take on board the environment they’re in and respond in a relatively realistic way unless it’s a game environment. Obviously that changes the playing field slightly.

IY: Yeah or if you ever join one of those chat rooms pretending to be someone you’re not.

GB: Well right, absolutely. Well that falls into a different commercial category which we haven’t touched on.

IY: Well that’s interesting isn’t it, to suggest that’s being carried over, the behaviour from the physical world? I wonder what happens if we do this for too much time and we only have ever an experience of the online world if we still would carry these traits across. It’s interesting isn’t it?

GB: It is although I don’t think personally that would ever happen. I mean you could say that – the same could be said of the telephone.

IY: Yes, that’s true.

GB: Once the telephone was in place you could say that we’d stop talking to each other but obviously that hasn’t taken place.

IY: No.

GB: I think the same is very much true with virtual worlds. I mean what I think is very interesting is how they’re beginning to integrate much more freely with each other and with the web.

Previously virtual worlds have been very much their own environment. They’ve been small closed off islands as Second Life is. Although there are a lot of people inside Second Life it is still its own environment and nobody else can really integrate fully with it.

What I’m starting to see now is that virtual worlds such as Multiverse are opening up the possibility for multiple worlds to create an effective platform. So very much as the internet is now with multiple websites the same could exist with virtual worlds so that you could enter the internet or use a browser to start looking at the worlds.

They could step freely from one to the next to the next which really starts to open up the ability for people, for users and consumers and for business to use it as a more stable platform much more freely in more ways.

I think just as the internet has opened up the ability for us as businesses to communicate via websites, I think virtual worlds will open up our ability to communicate much further and interact on a much richer level.

IY: Well certainly food for thought and the fact that your research in the physical world is so closely matching your experience with the research in Second Life and similar virtual worlds it’s food for thought anyway. And any enterprise not into Web 2.0 is probably going to need to get a handle on it because it’s coming whether you like it or not by the sound of it.

GB: I think it is. I think it’s a field that everybody will need to engage with to some degree or other over the next few years.

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