When customers smother your product

Any PM who has worked with customers extensively learns how to deal with the hard cases. There are different species of difficult customers, such those who exaggerate every problem to the level of a showstopper, or the ones who think there's only answer to every implementation question.

Product teams often worry that social media will just open the door to a larger, louder group of problem customers. That's not the typical result, for a variety of reasons (healthy communities police their own members, teams sometimes exaggerate how unreasonable customers are, etc.).

What product teams should worry about is the potentially insidious influence of the customers who love them. That phenomenon may be part of the explanation why Second Life, once touted as the vanguard of virtual world technology, seems to be getting a lot less attention than it used to. (Certainly, the public attention to Second Life pales in comparison to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

Second Life: The new "vast wasteland"?
Although I never felt a strong compulsion to use Second Life, I try to keep an open mind. Maybe there's more valuable activity happening in Linden Lab's virtual world than I've experienced, or read about, or heard from organizations who have experimented with establishing a presence in Second Life.

That's why I read "What Ever Happened To Second Life?" at PC Pro, editor Barry Collins' experiment in jumping back into Second Life. The executive summary: hard to find anyone at all, except in the carefully-delineated porn enclaves.

That conclusion inspired many outraged Second Life afficionados to give Collins a piece of their minds. If only Collins had dug deeper into Second Life, they argued, he would have found a thriving community busy doing useful things, such as teaching. And, obviously, Second Life has considerable potential as a creative outlet, particularly for people who want to create 3D, moving representations of things normally depicted in 2D, static terms.

Collins' critics may be right. Beyond the small slice of Second Life that's immediately visible, there are interesting things happening in Second Life. Some of the people who responded to Collins cited live concerts, college courses, NASA's 3D museum of the space program, and the "steampunk" community of New Babbage. Depending on your tastes, at least one of those Second Life offerings should sound interesting. (Truth in advertising: I haven't checked them out personally, so I can't tell you how good the experiences really are.)

The user experience of yesterday, now for today and tomorrow!
Unfortunately, Collins is also right. The initial experience of Second Life is at various times bewildering, frustrating, and disappointing. When I tried out the client application about a year ago, it was still how I remembered it, slow and buggy. Where MMORPG companies like Blizzard and Paragon have honed their UIs to the point of maximum usability, accommodating both first-time and veteran users, Second Life's UI is a pain to figure out and use.

Even after you've soldiered past these problems, Second Life gives you very few clues about what kinds of content might be out there, somewhere in the Lindenverse. Therefore, the claim that one of Collins' critics made, "You get out...What you put in," overlooks the fundamental flaw of  Second Life: new users have no idea what they could get out. Or even what's already there.

There's no question that Second Life has a lot of very happy users. The aficionados are right: if you put sufficient effort into Internet searches about Second Life content, or search within Second Life long enough, you'll probably find something interesting. Unfortunately, the investment in time is probably more than most people are willing to invest (if they even considered Googling for content about Second Life outside of Second Life). Second Life may work for the people who responded to Collins, but that doesn't make Second Life poised for growth.

Customers who love you to death
Gaetano Mosca noted the tendency of an elite group to form in any organization--what he called the Iron Law of Oligarchy. The elite wields some combination of power and influence, more or less of each depending on the setting. In the US Senate, senior senators have power over things like committee appointments. The parents who really call the shots at PTA meetings may not sit on the PTA board at all, but have considerable influence over the faculty, staff, and other parents. (And then there's this comic but terrifying story of a bare-knuckles political battle among department store Santas...)

The same Iron Law holds true of user communities. Over time, a subset of customers emerge who participate regularly in user group meetings, discussion forums, the comments sections of blogs, groups in social media channels, and other channels of face-to-face and electronic communication. Because vendors are interested  in feedback, this group of notables get increasing attention from product managers, product marketers, and the like. Unless the company takes deliberate steps to mitigate the Iron Law of Oligarchy, a small and often unrepresentative sample of users will wield disproportionate influence over the vendor's thinking about products and services. 

Second Life is an extreme case of how you can develop a very happy group of customers, and still fail miserably at reaching a wider audience. Some businesses are comfortable with that outcome, as long as the customer base stays loyal, and the business stays profitable. Most would be terrified to discover that their best customers are, in subtle ways, holding them back. I can't say for sure that the Second Life notables are the reason why the UI is still klunky, and the useful content is hard to find, but I definitely have my suspicions.

It's odd, in an age of social media that pull in millions of new users every month, to see one of the original members of the social media glitterati fade into the background. Stripped of the most dorky or pornographic elements of Second Life, there's definite potential there to attract an audience of people who may occasionally want to tour the ruins of Rome, or talk with band members after a concert. While the Second Life diehards might know if these were more than just possibilities, the larger world of people who might be Second Life customers do not. And Collins isn't the only person to have had trouble finding signs of life in Second Life.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]

Comments

re: When customers smother your product

I made a similar comment on New World Notes which links to this entry, but: the issue with Second Life's user interface is not old users (of whom I am one) demanding that things remain the same, rather that there was an assumption after open-sourcing the client that the user community would then provide lots of terrific UI changes. After all, the Second Life community is full of artists and programmers and so on, they would definitely improved things!

Except that this hasn't really happened; anyone experienced enough with SL to be able to write their own client (and even compiling the _official_ one is hard enough) is most likely to make one for "power users", which just adds functionality over the base client but is no easier to use. It takes a while for a new resident to even be _aware_ of the existence of third-party clients, by which time they must have mastered the official client or they wouldn't be in SL any more, having been bored or frustrated.

~*~

It's my opinion in any case that the SL client isn't really all that hard to learn to use - though it could certainly be better. I think I got used to the SL UI in about the same time as I got used to the WoW UI, and friends who have no experience with 3D games and so on have said similar. There are more functions available to SL residents than WoW players, because of the nature of the environment, so there will be more options, but they are not complicated to work out.

If there is a problem it is that SL throws new users into an open-ended "sandbox" world with barely any training, and expects them to work out what they want to do next. This makes the UI seem far more confusing because you don't even know what you're supposed to be doing with it.

re: When customers smother your product

How was LL able to get all these journalists to blame the customers for LL's interferences in a previously robust exponentially growing business? Everything was great until March 2008 when the change began. SL has been in a state of decline since the change of March 2008. Everything LL is inserting themselves into is falling apart. LL used to be a service provider but decided they wanted to take control of every aspect of the platform including directly competing with their customers.

LL is the problem. LL is the one that dumps new customers into areas owned by LL that LL does not manage 24*7 so new customers are insulted and subjected to activities that are opposite to welcoming.

If LL got out of the way and let the power users that actually care and depend on SL take care of business then things might improve.

The real core of the problem is LL does not actually use their product. LL does not eat their own dog food as all successful software companies do. Case in point is LL does not use their own systems for communication and event scheduling.

And it shows.

re: When customers smother your product

Given how convinced you are that the customers are the problem, you're awfully reticent about just *how* "their best customers are, in subtle ways, holding them back". You say, while carefully not saying, that "the Second Life notables are the reason why the UI is still klunky, and the useful content is hard to find", but you don't suggest any mechanism by which that might be true.

Has the Lab come out with wonderful innovative improvements to the UI and the methods of finding useful content, only to be forced to withdraw them again because of user outcry? No. There was that special CSI-related "simplified" viewer, but neither old nor new users flocked to it, and no one apparently wanted to own it. There is "Viewer 2.0", which will be coming out Real Soon Now from the lab, but we don't know much about that yet.

Have the existing Residents demanded that the lab concentrate on, say, building airports rather than improving the platform? Quite the opposite; the loudest Resident voices I've noticed have been raised *against* the Lab getting into the content-production business, urging them instead to concentrate on the platform, the First Hour experience, and so on.

Blaming the existing users, without providing any kind of explanation of how they are to blame, serves no one. At worse it will just lull the Lab into thinking that it is all Someone Else's Fault.

Second Life will not prosper in important ways by ignoring the early adopters and making the world more mall-like. It will prosper by keeping the creative (and even "dorky" and "pornographic", tyvm) elements that make it unique, and providing an intuitive UI and stable platform that lower the commitment required to enjoy it. No one is going to get rich anymore by opening an Internet Shopping Mall. But someone probably is going to get rich, and change the world, by unleashing the creative, social, cultural, passionate energies of lots of people in immersive virtual worlds.

re: When customers smother your product

This is a rather snarky article. You charge us users with holding Second Life back, and then in the next paragraph say that you don't know whether what you said is true.

So you're just shooting in the dark, right?

Do you have any real life examples of users smothering a company? Or is this something you *imagine* might happen somewhere, and SL was the only place you could locate your story?

re: When customers smother your product

I think you're wrong for a number of reasons, some of which I discuss here: http://bit.ly/704b8X

What you don't see as a very occasional "toe dipper" into the Second Life waters are the all the suggestions experienced users make constantly to Linden Lab that are ignored or powered off in another direction. New user retention is poor in SL but it's not because the power users are smothering the newbies. In fact, an official group of experienced users/residents designed to help newbies (Second Life Mentors) was disbanded by the Lab. The Lab appears to be moving toward "automated" and "software" oriented solutions -- things I personally don't see working well in a world so rich and complex as Second Life.