In Part One of this short series of bulletins, we challenged the remarkable scarcity of curiosity about customer value and user experience in the metaverse discourse to date. In Part Two, we recalled and summarised the seminal and still-critical discipline of Flow Theory, along with its younger sibling, Reversal Theory.
In this final bulletin of the series – coming full circle, in a sense – we dig into the current language of user experience in the metaverse, heading off some potentially damaging misconceptions, and aiming for a more feasible and accessible approach to real value.
The texture of the metaverse
Much of the current excitement about the metaverse focuses on solving the technological challenges posed by rendering what is anticipated as an astonishingly rich visual texture, with 3D a particular feature. While this element of the future experience certainly has its place, hidden within it is a problematic misconception. Our previous consideration of flow and reversal theory in Part Two helps us to unpack and qualify it.
A rich media experience and a rich human experience are two entirely different – albeit sometimes closely linked – propositions. They are commonly spoken of, in much of the current debate, as being more or less synonymous. But the most authoritative voices – if not always the loudest ones – tend to agree on the error of assuming that the primary promise of the metaverse lies in the enabling of virtual worlds. It may suit the immediate narratives of certain business models. These may – almost certainly will – have important roles to play.
But this does not match the established preferences, the behaviours, the modalities – and the stories of success and failure – that are easily found in the market of the past quarter-century. We now know enough about the cycle of customer experience and expectation in digital to be cautious of presuming that an engineer’s or designer’s satisfaction in solving a technical delivery challenge – for example, that of delivering 3D imagery with any consistency across a wide range of use cases, networks, and devices – is shared by the customer.
3D cinema’s revival came and went, led by the (interestingly-titled) 2009 blockbuster Avatar. The much-feted excursion by major cable and satellite TV providers (in Europe, Sky led the charge) into 3D sport in 2010 went nowhere, viewers frequently complaining of disorientation and nausea. Amazon’s Fire experiment with a 3D mobile handset also came and went in 2014. In summary, we built it in 3D, insistently, again and again. Not many people came. (And those that did often felt sick.)
Along with “world” there is another term around which divergent metaverse options and opinions tend to rally. It’s “immersion”. When we mistake the rare and quite specific use cases and customer value offered by immersion in a rich media experience, for the infinitely wider range of use cases suggested by a rich human experience, we are going far too deep into very specific use cases, and not nearly wide enough to embrace a comprehensive and cohesive range of desirable services.
If today’s customer has been shown to long for deep immersion in anything at all, it’s clearly not (beyond occasional theme park-style novelty) a realistically-rendered, real-time 3D world. It’s the intelligent, most often utility-driven services that find their way, unerringly, to the home screen of our mobiles. These offerings, with very few exceptions, have in common the humble, but immensely powerful and sticky, attribute of reducing work and risk for their users.
The obvious exceptions notwithstanding, we rarely want to be immersed in media. We invariably love – and our appetite for this continues to grow, along with our delight in discovering new such services – to be accompanied anytime, anywhere and everywhere we go by intelligent, data-enabled services that place us, the customer, end-user, and human being, at the core of the value.
We want to be immersed, to put it very simply, not merely in rich media, but in rich intelligence. The market narrative of the past 25 years fully supports this principle. It aligns with our understanding of flow theory and the locus of experiential value in digital. The future development path of the Internet will – again, exceptions notwithstanding – adhere to it as an infallible North Star. And – as a consequence of all these points – it will steer the course, in terms of the innovations that land and stick, of the successful evolution of the metaverse.
The logic of our argument regarding the future direction and shape of the metaverse is, as it turns out, brutally simple. Value is created by service providers who deliver experiences that enable optimal flow.
The successful development and adoption of the metaverse will be in direct proportion, not to the delivery and penetration of particular technologies, nor the achievement of the visions of certain tech giants, but to the distribution and delivery of flow experiences across the widest possible range of domains of customer concern.
The flow experiences that come to cultural, social, and commercial dominance, due to their consistent delivery of real value, will coalesce to form the next waves of behavioural change: the new modalities and behaviours on which every previous major disruption has ridden.
In other words, users won’t “step in and step out of” the metaverse. They will co-create it. They will dictate a lot of what happens in it. And they will carry it with them.
It must be emphasised again that flow – just like value – resides not with any service provider or its offerings, but in the fields of customer and user experience, in the mind. The distinct value drivers that emerge, and are predominant, in different domains of consumer concern, will determine widely variant interpretations of flow, and thus very different models of experienced value.
Looking outside entertainment, so-called “experiences” in central areas of customer concern, referencing as examples banking and healthcare, rarely reward rich immersiveness, but immediacy and speed: the ability, we could say, to get in and out of the experience – the service – as rapidly as possible.
The hard lessons of brands in such sectors who have attempted, and indeed often still do, to drive up engagement at the expense of appropriate customer value are being all-too-slowly learned. Perhaps paradoxically, but entirely pragmatically, in such sectors many of the highest-value services offer “experiences that are not experienced at all”, demanding little or no attention from the user, but delivering clear – and often compelling – service value.
All this said, a major promise of the metaverse that no one can seriously challenge is the common sense value of increased integration across domains. However, a disappointing amount of the public debate around interoperability has revolved around the capability of avatars and game skins to travel between virtual worlds. This is a vexing (and surely short-sighted and naive) example of what happens when our focus is pulled away from what’s valuable – or not – to the customer, to maximising the priorities of existing market leaders.
We’re not merely looking for virtual goods to move effortlessly between commercial entities without rights violation. We want customers – and value – to be able to move effortlessly through and across domains. To flow, in fact, with minimum friction and maximum intelligence.
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