Apparently my gripes over Google Lively's frustrating whisper chat were heard all the way in the kingdom of Google. After posting them here at Terra Nova I received an email from Lively's User Experience Designer, Mark Young. We got to chatting about what was and wasn't working in Google's new virtual world, user-interface-wise, and Young agreed to a little Q&A. The results are posted here for anyone interested in how interface design develops in a world like Lively -- or just anyone who's comforted to know that, yes, Google hears your gripes:
Q: What's your role on Google's User Experience Design/Lively teams?
A: I'm a User Experience Designer on the Apps team, which includes people working on Gmail, Calendar, Talk, Blogger, Reader, Docs, Sites, Picasa, Orkut and more. I am the UX designer on the Lively team.
Q: What criticisms have you been hearing most about Lively's UI?
A: Crashes, problems logging in and lag were the biggest complaints initially. The engineering team has been working furiously to solve those, making great progress which should show up in client updates shortly...
Some people had trouble discovering how to do basic things like locomotion. We're working on enhancements to the visual interface and flow for new users.
Some people don't like to use the mouse for locomotion - a lot of experienced 3D users expect to use the keyboard to move around. We'll probably add a keyboard control option at some point but most people seem happy with how simple and fast direct manipulation is.
Many people are delighted by the animation options but many are not happy to be kissed or punched by a stranger. We'll probably add options for people to limit what other people can do to them as far as gestures go.
Q: Given the issues we've discussed with private chat, what are your plans for working with this particular part of user experience?
A: Thus far we have concentrated on getting the basics right for small conversational groups. We would like to increase the visual interface's capacity for chat so that more people can say more things at once. We would also like to support scenarios we've neglected so far, 1-on-1 chat and discussions within larger groups.
We have several ideas for the 1-on-1 scenarios. We can improve the whisper interface by making it stickier, rather than having to reopen it for each utterance. We have also experimented with methods to focus on select conversational partners, so that the most interesting chat bubbles are in the foreground and others are in the background.
Its a challenge to create a simple GUI for large group discussions but we are hearing some demand for it from organizations and businesses. It will take a significant amount of R&D to make it easy to participate in a seminar with 100 people chatting.
There is a lot of demand for voice chat and it certainly would improve the user experience a great deal. We are using Google Talk technology for chat so we already have a foundation that supports voice.
Q: Are there other parts of the Lively interface you're hoping to tweak?
A: Everything. Much of the GUI is not as complete or polished as planned in designs. Room creation/publishing/decorating could be a lot easier than it is now - we're working on that. Social functionality needs to be built out further - finding friends and inviting friends should be easier and more productive. There are some aspects of the client that limit how flexible it is as an element of web design - we would like to have it be more malleable in the hands of web designers.
There is a big demand for the ability to create content. We have a tool that our artists and partners use to publish content after its been exported from off-the-shelf DCC tools like Max, Maya and SketchUp. The publishing tool needs a redesign and documentation before its ready for public consumption. However, UI design and development for that is a simpler task than ironing out the policies for user-generated content.
Q: You mentioned private rooms. What are the plans there?
A: Many real-world attitudes and expectations seem to apply to virtual rooms. Many people are asking for the ability to limit who can visit or decorate a room. Some people just want to hang out with their friends and they want to create a space for that but its awkward if a stranger drops in. There are a variety of use cases where groups, organizations and businesses need to limit access to members, customers or employees. We considered a sharing framework like the one for Google Docs where you choose to have a document be public or private - if its private then you grant access by sending email invites to the people that you want to share with or collaborate with. Now that we have a lot of users, we can test alternative ideas to find patterns that better match what people want to do.
Q: What are your overall goals with Lively's UI?
A: Lively is a platform for virtual socializing that adds a lot of degrees of freedom to ways that people can express themselves on the Web. We want the UI to be very simple so that rooms fit comfortably into the Web context - you should be able to multi-task, web surf, email, IM and hang-out in rooms without shifting gears too much. On the other hand, the UI should be very flexible and productive so that you can socialize and create things in fluid and natural ways.
Note: Earlier conversations with Young may or may not have involved interface design changes specific to cybersex, but since Google has no official statement on sex in its virtual world, those comments will have to be left to your imaginations, Terra Nova readers.