2010 CRC PhD Student Conference
Understanding the Influence of 3D Virtual Worlds on Perceptions of
2D E-commerce Websites
Minh Q. Tran
Centre for Research in Computing
The Open University
Dr. Shailey Minocha Prof. Angus Laing
Centre for Research in Computing Business School
The Open University Loughborough University
Dr. Darren Langdridge Mr. Dave Roberts
Department of Psychology Centre for Research in Computing
The Open University The Open University
Probation viva: Passed July 2009
Starting date: October 2008
The aim of our research is to understand consumers’ experiences in 3D virtual worlds (VWs) and how
those experiences influence consumers' expectations of 2D e-commerce websites. As consumers
become familiar with the affordances and capabilities of 3D VWs, do their expectations of 2D e-
commerce websites change? The outcome of this research project will be an understanding of
consumers’ experiences in 3D VWs and 2D e-commerce websites. Furthermore, design guidelines will
be developed for e-commerce in 3D VWs and for the integration of 3D VWs with 2D e-commerce
3D Virtual Worlds
3D VWs are online, persistent, multi-user environments where users interact through avatars .
Avatars are digital self-representations of users. Through avatars, users can walk in simulated physical
spaces, talk to other avatars and interact with the environment. This opens up different possibilities for
interaction; both in terms of human-computer interaction (HCI) and also business-to-consumer (B2C)
interactions. Users may be able to browse through virtual markets, shop with their friends and interact
in real-time with vendors . These features suggest shopping in 3D VWs may be more immersive
compared to shopping on websites .
E-commerce in Second Life
Second Life (SL) is a 3D VW. SL does not cost any money to use. It is also an open-ended platform;
users of SL are encouraged to create their own content and design their own activities. Users can sell
any content (objects, scripts, animations) that they make. Content can also be bought from others. As a
consequence, SL has developed its own virtual economy , including having virtual stores to shop
from (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Stores in Second Life.
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Currently, the economy in SL mainly involves virtual items, such as virtual clothes, avatar models,
homes and land. However, there is potential for real business, involving real world items. Some
companies, such as Coca-Cola and Adidas, have already used SL to advertise their products . As
the popularity of 3D VWs grows, more companies will likely make use of 3D VWs for their e-
commerce beyond marketing and advertising. 3D VWs has the potential to become a platform for
buying and selling real items, just as websites are today. However, successful implementation of e-
commerce in 3D VWs will require an understanding of what influences the user experience .
The goal of this research is to investigate affordances of 3D VWs and their influence on consumer’s
perceptions and expectations of 2D e-commerce websites. This understanding will be used to develop
guidelines for designing positive e-commerce experiences in 3D VWs and 2D e-commerce websites.
The research questions are:
RQ1: What are consumers’ experiences in 3D VWs?
RQ2: What are consumers’ perceptions and expectations of 2D e-commerce websites who
have experience in VWs?
RQ3: What are the differences in expectations and behaviours between consumers in 3D VWs
and 2D e-commerce websites?
Online Service Encounter
Consumers’ experiences are based on what occurs during the service encounter. The service encounter
refers to all interactions between a consumer and a service provider for the exchange of a product or
provision of a service. According to the service encounter model, a full understanding of the experience
involves looking at what happens before, during and after a purchase (Figure 1).
Figure 2. Model of the service encounter .
Furthermore, consumers now have the option between different commerce channels (websites, high
street, telephone, etc.). Therefore, consumers’ experiences are not based only on the performance of
individual channels, but also how well the channels are integrated to provide a positive and seamless
experience. This research focuses on two commerce channels in particular, 3D VWs and 2D websites.
Affordances of 3D VWs
3D VWs support the service encounter in different ways compared to 2D websites. For example,
having products rendered in 3D can improve product ‘diagnosticity’ . Diagnosticity refers to how
easily a consumer can judge a product to fit their needs. An interactive 3D model of products gives
users more information about its form and function. Therefore, users may be able to make informed
purchase decisions when shopping in VWs because they have a better idea of what the product is like.
Another advantage is the multi-user and synchronous environment. VWs produce the sense ‘being
there’, also referred to as ‘presence’ . A sense of ‘being there’ with others is also possible because
avatars are located in the same virtual space; users can ‘see’ each other. As a result, the e-commerce
experience has a social dimension that is not experienced when shopping on websites.
Affordances of 2D Websites
Websites have their own advantages that VWs do not. Presently, websites can provide more
information compared to VWs as they use text effectively . The advantage of text is that it can
describe many details about a product, such as specifications and warranties, which cannot be easily
conveyed through images or 3D models. The web also has the advantage of being faster than 3D VWs
because of its low bandwidth and CPU requirements.
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The methodology of this research project is empirical and qualitative. Three studies involving users are
planned (Figure 3). The first two studies are based on in-depth interviews. The interviews will be
conducted in SL. During the interviews, participants are encouraged to describe their own shopping
experiences in detail and from their own subjective viewpoint. The interview technique is based on
phenomenology . Phenomenological interviews, and subsequent phenomenological analysis, allow
the researcher to obtain the structure and content of experience. During the interviews, each participant
is asked to describe the pre-purchase, purchase and post-purchase interactions from a service encounter.
The data consists of descriptions of shopping experiences, including behaviours, thoughts and feelings.
For this project, data analysis includes both descriptive phenomenological analysis  and a general
thematic analysis . A descriptive phenomenological analysis of each interview produces use cases
(or individually structured narratives). Thematic analysis produces a set of themes relating to
affordances and user experience. The use cases and themes provide grounding to reason about design
implications and design guidelines. Design guidelines will be validated through a third study. The
guidelines will be evaluated by users who have experience creating content in 3D VWs and websites.
Part of the validation study will involve making the guidelines usable for the intended audience of
designers and marketers.
Figure 3. Project methodology
The first study is now complete. A list of themes based on affordances and use cases are being
compiled. The aim is to provide a comprehensive list of affordances in 3D VWs for designers to think
about when designing e-commerce systems. The long-term goal is to provide guidance on how to best
use these affordances to create positive experiences. Some affordances identified so far are the ability
• navigate through 3D environments facilitated by the spatial metaphor in a 3D VW
• browse pre-arranged displays similar to a real-world store
• interact with others in real-time as avatars
• blend the 3D virtual world experience with 2D websites
Through further analysis, a set of use qualities and their design implications will be derived. Use
qualities relate to emotional aspects (sensations, feelings, meaning-making) . For example, some use
qualities that characterize the 3D virtual world experience are:
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• Disembodied presence: presence and interaction in VWs requires a combination of interaction
metaphors, some from avatar-centred (or game-based) interactions and some from pointer-based
• Touristy shopping: VWs are still a relatively new technology. Consumers are open to the idea of
simply enjoying the sights and sounds through visiting new store. The element of discovery and
wonder partly contributes to the positive feelings associated with the shopping experience.
• Effortful: consumers perceive the shopping experience as requiring non-trivial effort. This may be
due to the difficulty of finding stores or the time required to travel through the virtual world
because of ‘lag’. The way that consumers describe shopping experience in 3D VWs suggests
shopping is more difficult in VWs compared to shopping on websites.
• Socially situated: consumers are not alone in VWs. The motivation and consequence of
consumer’s actions are influenced by their social network and activity. For example, consumers
often choose to buy products because they see someone else with the product. Or, they buy
products so that they can share it with others in the virtual world.
The second and third empirical studies will be completed within the next year. The final outcome will
be design guidelines for usability of e-commerce in VWs and on websites. Additionally, the guidelines
will address how to integrate 3D and 2D e-commerce environments for a positive and seamless
consumer experience. The outcome of this research will benefit designers and marketers by providing
guidance and a framework for designing positive e-commerce experiences. Consumers will also benefit
by having e-commerce systems that meet their requirements and address their expectations.
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Note: All studies involving participants has been approved by The Open University’s Human
Participants and Materials Ethics Committee (HPMEC). The study protocol is consistent with
guidelines from the British Psychological Association (http://www.bps.org.uk) and Second Life
Community Standards (http://secondlife.com/corporate/cs.php).
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