Monday, April 12, 2010

A Tale of Two Updates: The Version 2 Blues

Ah, Spring. A time of renewal, of birth, of cleaning out the cobwebs, and dusting off the cliched metaphors.

It's also apparently a time when large online communities do complete overhauls of their systems, and that, my friends, is what this post is about. Two very different systems -- Harmony Central and Second Life -- coincidentally rolled out their respective Version 2 recently, and the reactions have been... well, rough. Rough with some similarities, but also with some interestingly different reasons. Let's take a quick look at what happened in each case and see if we can tell why.

Brief digression: I'm not going to editorialize on either platform updates. My opinion of this stuff is no more valid than anyone's and to say there's a "wide range of opinions" is putting it mildly. Instead, I'm here to talk about the reactions of the communities involved, and perhaps look at the reasons behind those reactions.

Harmony Central 2.0

Harmony Central is probably the largest online community for musicians. It was founded in 1994 by a couple of young, enterprising guys (Scott Lehman and Wilson Chan) who were operating the site from their dorm room at the time. I distinctly remember the first time they pitched the site to me; I was a marketing drone for an audio equipment manufacturer at the time, and they were approaching me as a potential advertiser. We weren't yet able to realize the implications of online advertising in its nascent state, and while I declined to lend financial support at the time, I began keeping an eye on the site.

Scott and Wilson eventually sold the site to a private investor, venture capitalist Ray Campbell, who was more experienced at the business end than they were. But still, banner advertising and sponsored content was a hard sell for the traditionalists in the music/audio products business, and the dot-com crash happened around the same time. A few years later, in 2005, the entire site was sold to the industry's largest retailer, Musicians Friend (a division of Guitar Center). The site's main draw was based on three things: up-to-date news on instruments and audio gear, user-written product reviews, and a high-traffic set of forums that were arranged in dozens of sub-forums for various specialized information (electric guitars, basses, songwriting, recording, and so on).

Fast forward to 2010. The original version of Harmony Central was powered via some custom code that Scott and Wilson wrote, and then around 2000 they switched to a more standardized forum software, the familiar vBulletin. While it was familiar for the long-term users, there were some inherent problems and deficiencies, and starting in 2009, they began taking steps to upgrade to a new system. Harmony Central 2.0, therefore, is powered via Jive Software. Jive is an established brand, and a wide range of companies use them for forums, social networking, content management and more. Since many of the capabilities of the new engine greatly improve the type of tools available to the users' disposal, you'd think that this upgrade would be met with hearty enthusiasm by the site's users, right?

Heh heh. No, not so much.
A software package is only as good as its implementation, and Harmony Central made a good effort at thinking through the changeover. They did a preview Beta for months beforehand and invited user feedback, but it wasn't until they flipped the switch last week that many of the flaws based on the typical user experience became apparent. Among many things the site members have been screaming about...

• Not all content was ported at the same time, so one of the major draws of the site -- the User Review area -- has been mostly inaccessible.

• The basic structure of the site still seems to be in flux, with strange navigation quirks that seem to leave people lost at various times.

• The initial rollout of the site's color complement was met with universal hatred. While they've since toned it back a bit, the former site had a easy-on-the-eyes contrast of purples and blues, while the rollout of HC 2.0 offered an extremely stark white background with a small default font that was really hard to read for extended periods of time.

• Many long-time users found themselves unable to log into the site since the switchover. The migration to the new software required a re-signup process that went fine for most... as long as they had access to the original email addy they used to initial register for the site, which for some people was a decade ago.

• Last but definitely not least, the site has been difficult (and in some cases impossible) to view or post to using certain browsers. It would seem that as of the writing of this post, no mobile devices like iPhones or Blackberrys are able to post to the site, which was not a problem before the transition.

Believe it or not, there's more, but the above situations alone spell bad things for this upgrade. Even though they've kept the word "beta" in the site header, a significant number of members have made histrionic farewell speeches and have claimed to be leaving the community for good. Sadly, it seems that even some of the forum moderators have crossed over to the dark side, and there are probably reasons why you can't blame them. In any case, there has been four straight days of screaming, threats, suggestions of boycotts and all the rest of the stuff you expect from a truly unhappy user base.

What can we learn from this? As opposed to picking apart the site itself or the way its upgrade was rolled out, the one thing we know for sure is that people just hate change. They hate, hate, hate it. And when forced into a change for whatever reason (many quite legitimate), they're going to be looking hard for valid reasons to justify their hate. Unfortunately, in the case of Harmony Central, they were given reasons a-plenty. It's at the point where users are designing their own skins for the newly-designed site to make it look as much as possible like the old version.

Still, in the short time since the new site was launched, I've noted that a good number of improvements have already been made, and some of the missing content is filtering back into view. My prediction is that the size of the site's member base and the value of the content collected from 15+ years will outweigh the problems they're experiencing right now during the changeover. And while it will be different (which is what it was supposed to be... different), it will probably be fine. Eventually.

Second Life Viewer 2

Here's a remarkably different situation than the above tale of woe, but with some similarities. Second Life isn't a web site; it's an entire 3D virtual world that was created by its users (called "residents"). Founded in 2003, the service had its big growth period in 2006, which is when I joined up. As opposed to a browser like you'd use on the web, Second Life has a proprietary viewer that allows for 3D interaction in the online world.

While gradual improvements in Second Life have come out in dribs and drabs since its introduction, the basic feel of the UI has remained mostly unchanged until recently, when Viewer 2 was unveiled. Like Harmony Central, residents of Second Life were given quite some time to preview the new Viewer in beta before the official release.

Some of the new bells and whistles of Viewer 2 are pretty fantastic. I won't get into all the techno-geeky descriptions of it, but much of it meets the long-term wish lists of many residents over the years, and then some. So why not open the champagne and celebrate? Well, there are two factors here.

First, as opposed to a free web site like Harmony Central, many residents of Second Life pay money to use the service in various ways, and some of them have set up virtual businesses that they use for actual income. Massive changes in the format can mean changes in the way they do business, and paid services have higher expectations from its customers than free services.

Second, and this should sound familiar: people have trouble adapting to large UI changes, and "not being able to find stuff" in Viewer 2 has been a real problem. You'd think that users who have been immersed in a platform for a number of years would have an advantage over the new folks, right? Well, in cases like these, some residents are so ingrained in the way they do things on the earlier viewer, they're having a hell of a time making use of formerly familiar operations in Viewer 2.

The second item can't be helped much. People are either going to love or hate the new look, or be ambivalent about it, but all are going to have to adapt if they want to continue being involved in Second Life at some point (currently, both the old viewer and new viewer remain compatible, so residents currently have a choice, which was a smart move by Second Life's makers).

But the first item is a real doozy. People who use Second Life for reasons beyond socialization and entertainment have relied on certain functions within the viewer. People who create and sell virtual clothing, for example, have noticed massive drops in their store traffic while people try to figure out the new systems. This might be temporary while the newness of Viewer 2 sinks in. But people who rely on events, such as live musicians or stores that have sales, are really up in arms, because it would seem that the new viewer makes it extraordinarily difficult to pull up listings with the ease that the old version had.

Unlike Harmony Central, which despite its popularity is just one more place on the web for people to kibitz and find info, Second Life is a unique platform that doesn't have an alternative that functions in the same manner. In other words, if you don't like it, you can just go design your own virtual world and live in it. Not a simple prospect.

But in both cases, it would seem that there are reasons for some of the UI changes that are beyond what's being openly expressed to the respective user bases. Some of the specific issues aren't simple mistakes in design, but rather, perhaps, calculated changes that are only mistakes in that the designers assumed that the user base wouldn't be aware that there's an agenda behind the decisions. The new Harmony Central, for example, has much more area for online advertising (as a free site, serving ads is the only way it can generate income) which has affected the UI design. The reasons behind Second Life's decisions in the changes are a little harder to pinpoint. Why make events harder to find? Some have already suggested that since Second Life's income model is not positively affected by resident events, the designers have purposefully buried this aspect of the UI, perhaps leading to more of the types of transactions which do earn them some dough. It sounds paranoid and very speculative, and it probably is. But still, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum, and people will generally try and fill in their own reasons when none are plainly offered.

At the end of the day, the respective user bases of Harmony Central and Second Life will very likely continue using both services without much of a bump in the road once the transition time has passed. The customers' likelihood of making their own proactive changes really only increases when a clear advantage is presented by an entirely different party, and if anything would bring about the true demise of either service, it'll be a competitor who does what they do... but better, faster, or cheaper. In other words, as we rockers would say: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. And don't go changin' to try and please me.


Diana said...

A lot to think about...hmm. Viewer 2.0 is still very buggy, and a lot of the new features are still kind of useless. HTML on prims still doesn't work well across different platforms. Shared media is the same. Oh, don't forget the new cloting layers we've been begging for... LL still hasn't made the templates widely available =(
Like you said last night, I'll keep using my preferred viewer until they pry it from my cold, dead hands.


KS2 Problema said...

This apparently well-known SL blogger has a rather dark view of changes at SL -- and also mentions the dust-up at HC in her critical comments about the developer: