The burgeoning field of virtual reality incorporates a myriad of design elements that differ significantly from more traditional methods for designing positive user experience (UX). While there are many facets of digital product design that can be transferred to virtual reality design, the truth is that the sheer nature of VR has a vastly different set of requirements than many traditional product designers may be accustomed to.
Virtual reality and its close cousin augmented reality, are fast becoming increasingly popular in digital product spheres. In this article, we’ll explore the specific needs of VR when it comes to UX and user interface, how to adapt traditional methods into this still-nascent digital product niche, and how the unique elements of VR require designers to implement innovative and effective UX solutions.
The UX Requirements of Virtual Reality
VR experiences have many divergent requirements when it comes to UX. There are analogues to traditional product design, of course, but the application of these heuristics is what is important to focus upon for the scope of this article, as traditional digital products are designed to be interacted with through the medium of the touchscreen of a mobile app or the mouse and keyboard of a desktop or laptop. Instead, VR products use a combination of the user’s body and senses as well as proprietary or adapted controller devices for interaction.
Virtual reality, therefore, relies upon the following adapted or original heuristic approaches when it comes to UX:
- Honesty: Virtual reality UX provides freedom of choice for the user when it comes to privacy, identity, exit, and safety. VR is and must remain an opt-in experience.
- Inclusivity: Because of the unique physical control characteristics of a VR environment, design and development for VR products need to focus on a diversity of user physicalities to not exclude individuals with different capabilities.
- Safety: UX designers need to ensure users don’t risk physical harm to themselves, their environment, or those close by. This includes the risks of over-exposure to VR, which can lead to detrimental effects on a user’s physical or emotional well-being.
- Comprehension: Virtual reality UX needs to provide helpful guidance to users in relation to understanding the VR environment in which they now reside. Users need to feel present in this environment and empowered to understand its inherent rules.
- Interactivity: UX tools need to be developed with an eye towards not just passively experiencing this virtual reality product but for interacting with it. The ability to pick up, move, shape, and create objects in an intuitive manner is a requirement.
Techniques for Meeting UX Requirements in Stationary VR Experiences
With the requirements for UX design in a virtual environment laid bare, it’s possible to take these heuristics and then begin design user environments, controls, and experiences that will support these guidelines. Some of these heuristics are, of course, dependent upon the type of experience your digital VR product seeks to deliver. An example would be a virtual reality product that can be experienced by a user sitting in a chair or standing in place versus one that can be experienced while moving.
The majority of VR experiences today rely upon stationary users to provide comfort and safety, with a preference for either sitting or standing in place. Movement within such a virtual environment is often relegated to objects or experiences coming towards a stationary user. Otherwise, design requirements include a control device for simulating movement within the VR environment without necessitating the user to leave his or her stationary position.
Additional methods for providing positive UX in stationary virtual reality include the careful application of sensory inputs well beyond the visual. A typical VR experience incorporates a visor or other similar headgear, that provides stereographic video for users to perceive a three-dimensional environment, but audio engineering methods for providing virtual clues regarding distance and environment can further enhance UX by reinforcing what the user already sees.
Full Movement VR and its Highly Specific UX Requirements
Full movement is much rarer when it comes to VR, as this requires highly complex UX design. Omnidirectional treadmills are one option, but this requires a level of physical engineering and design that may be beyond the scope of many developers that are more well-versed in digital product design. Monitoring the safety and comfort heuristics of a user in such an environment can also be problematic, as any such device must be equipped to prevent accidental physical injury and fatigue.
Even more ambitious are full-movement VR, though the physical design elements may be less stringent in some ways. Designed around a carefully-controlled enclosed space, full-movement VR systems combine a VR overlay with this otherwise featureless room, with the overlay correlating to a digital version of the room displayed through a user’s sensory device.
Full systems like these require highly sophisticated mapping techniques to ensure the user’s field of view matches the environment in which they are physically present. Additionally, these systems have their own requirements when it comes to safety and comfort as well; a user can quickly become disoriented or even hurt upon encountering an unexpected obstacle. These issues make the potential for negative UX is much higher in such environments and in ways never foreseen in a traditional digital product environment.
Agile, Adaptive UX Design
Whether a virtual reality product is being developed for a creative design application, an entertainment experience, a gaming platform, or something completely different, UX design is going to play a decisive role in presenting this product to the user. It requires an agile and adaptive UX design team with a proven track record of digital product development to excel in this VR environment.