Virtual Reality (VR) can allow a user to open new dimensions of experience beyond the familiar screen-based experiences. It could alter the design thinking we use today as we look into the future potential of this medium.
The shift from a screen to a virtual space is a huge jump for any user to get comfortable within a new medium. While most of the basic heuristics of good 2D UX still make sense, but the methods of applying these heuristic principles change in the new paradigm of VR experiences.
Here are some high-level UX principles to keep in mind before looking into future potential.
Firstly as always for every digital experience, start with an idea and expand on it. Do not start with an interface and features. Create a user journey within the idea. This user journey will help define various interactions that will lead to the interface. Define what needs to be automated, and what should be user-controlled.
Design experiences, not interfaces
VR presents a unique platform where the designer should think beyond the interface. In this medium, Storytelling is very important and should not be ignored. Use the possibilities of the medium to create an immersive environment instead of just an interface. Knowledge of psychology, architecture, sound design, lighting design, and physics come useful while designing for the virtual world. Current experiences try hard to come closer to simulations of real life. But with time, content and creative use of content will evolve to the possibilities of this new medium.
Create multi-sensory interactions
Take full benefit of both visual and audio design to create multi-sensory interactions. Audio is not just the spoken language but the sounds we hear and communicate that are integral to the understanding of the world around us. Consider three-dimensionality of sounds when designing environments. Use sounds to create brand recognition, provide feedback to user actions, create context, draw attention, prevent errors and assist the user in navigating. Ambient soundscapes help users in navigating between virtual worlds and recognize the environment without confusion. Surround sound cues also help remind the user that there is an evolving environment outside of the immediate experience that is closer to them. Ensure that the same sound is not repeated too often. Invasive, bad quality and repeated audio will cause more frustrations compared to poorly executed visual interfaces.
Through visuals create physical objects that generate and mimic references, context, emotions and realistic experiences with them. One can even start by creating an audio and visual style guide to have consistency and cohesiveness before proceeding with the actual design of the experience.
Add meaning through color
Use color effectively to create psychological experiences for users. Understanding and usage of color are more important when compared to a traditional website. Colors also help create both a brand’s identity and a cultural context to any visual story. Try unexpected colors to enhance the audiovisual experience. Colors do not only affect the emotional reactions but also user’s performance during the journey through the experience.
Let there be light
‘Lighting design’ is an important component that was traditionally mastered by architects, interior and set designers, UX designers should now start understanding its principles to create interesting perceptions of dimensions, distances, and spaces in users. Good lighting will help bring clarity, readability, create realistic environments and increase user engagement.
Understand transitions and perspective
During transitions between real and virtual experiences, it is important to make them gradual and seamless. Our human mind and senses cannot work mechanically to switch easily between worlds. A sudden transition could turn off users. A good transition will help establish users sense of presence in a virtual environment. One can start by recreating a virtual replica of the physical world as a starting point of the experience. It will also help accustom users to limitations like latency, reduced field of view or tracking errors while being in a familiar environment.
Motion, orientation, and focus are important considerations to allow a user to be in control and at ease with his body during the interactions. Users should know where they are and what are their choices for actions from their current location. Create a relatable ground-to-horizon context in VR to avoid motion sickness and a realistic sense of perspective for the user. This means objects further away might look smaller, less sharp and faded to create a sense of distance and depth.
Understand the physical spaces and views
Create intelligent multidirectional interfaces for users for them to choose a path of their choice. Hinting of interactive objects is an important aspect of design where a balance is needed between the environment looking natural and at the same time user should be able to figure out interactive elements. This can be done by applying subtle changes using colors, light, and sound during interactions. Be mindful of the field of view. A significant number of users never actually explore 360-degree view. They see and explore mostly what is in front of them. 30-degree direct view is the best and can be expanded only until 60 degrees. 120 degrees is the peripheral field of view when the neck is used to look around. However, the natural gaze of our eyes is 6 degrees above the expected position in front of our eyes since our seeing involves bending the head down and eyes looking up a bit. If the expected behavior is for the user to look around in 360 degrees, create enough curiosity cues for the user to explore. Create experiences where the movement is minimal since humans generally like to stay still either in a standing position or sitting position to mentally grasp a new experience. Be conscious of the arms reach, distance, arm movements, head turns etc to create fatigue-free easy physical interactions. Do not design for a perfect user with the right height, vision, balance. Consider all kinds of users with varying physical traits and skill levels.
Incorporate intelligence in design
Create an experience where you think ahead for the user needs before, during and after the interactions. Virtual experiences are more immersive and use more human senses than traditional digital media. Use available tools to record and analyze interactions so that experiences can be iteratively improved.
PREPARE FOR THE FUTURE
Make the experience more natural
Can an experience be created that feels like a dimension beyond the physicality and familiar mental experiences? So far designers have been playing with extending the familiar physical experiences into another virtual dimension. What if virtual technology can allow us to push these limits? The virtual experience offers a possibility to create a different UX formula.
The quintessential human experience is complexity. This complexity is at various levels, planes and has many moving parts. The popular design approach is to focus on simple causation, instead of complex causation, to solve design problems. Charles Eames said that Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design. But what if there are many causes that cannot be simplified and there is a need to see beyond cause and effect more than mere pairs?
A different approach to design thinking can be applied here where there is an ecosystem of simultaneous experiences of many causes and many effects and the preferred path of the user is not isolated. Our human consciousness is complex and requires computing or neural modeling beyond simple causation. Modeling of complex causation will be a huge opportunity in creating virtual experiences closer to human experiences in the future. It will help create a diversity of data-driven experience patterns, just like our mind. New communities can be created in the virtual world where the experience is inclusive. The navigation paths for each user will be different and their boundaries will be blurred. This is a different UX approach than the present, where exclusive custom experiences are being created today with defined user paths, commonly used behavior patterns and boundaries.
Liberation from boundaries and order will make the experience natural because this is how nature is. Nature has no boundaries, yet highly organized. The interface will be more peripheral, non-sequential and operated with ease just like our senses that do not interfere in our human experience. This is not cluttered or chaotic experience because chaos by definition is when a user cannot control something.
Experientially, this could mean restricted movement for the user due to less number of open spaces and cluttered scenarios, something completely different from the current UX best practices in a 2D environment. Designers will create interesting environments with paths, obstacles, blockers, dangers, ascent, descent, slopes to allow users to have their own unique experiences. Guiding users in this so-called cluttered environment can be done by using contextual way-finding elements like houses, vegetation or open spaces and still maintain the authenticity of the environment.
The user will be allowed to define his story, and expand his understanding based on the path chosen. The wisdom of storytelling and design will accommodate the cause and the consequences of every action by the user. This is an intelligence-driven interface where every choice a user makes is valid and has consequence.
There are other areas to explore like 2D interface interactions within a 3D environment, assisting the user and simplifying the experience to overcome attention fatigue if any during the user interaction, Creating emotional relationships between spaces and users and remembering it in future interactions etc.
In the present system of design process driven by budgets, timeline, and very little patience, it may be considered an ambitious and far-fetched idea for now. Let us see how technology innovations will shape the experiences for tomorrow.
It’s time to address time
Think about exploiting the dimension of time. Virtual experience is all about taking the dimension of space to the next level. Time is an uncharted territory and a human construct. While real-time may not be changed, an illusion can certainly be created where the user is immersed in a different time and space.
Create a ‘reality’ of illusion
Understanding the concept of reality vs illusion requires some studies in mind sciences and spirituality. The ancient Indian wisdom talks about reality being an illusion, ‘Maya’ or virtual. This is an interesting idea where experience is an effort of discovery and uncovering a truth. Our awareness is also called a ‘multidimensional consciousness’ that vibrates in resonance with the frequency of its dimensions. The dream sequences and meditative experiences could give us insights into creative ways a virtual world can be woven. This idea would work really well in complex virtual reality games of the future, or VR apps could be used to remove subconscious blockages and even treat mental illness.
We are still in the early stages of creating apps for a new reality. The industry best practices will evolve with time. It is important to keep an open mind and think beyond the design principles used for 2D screen designs. It is also an interesting time for a technology focussed UX designer and strategist to stay abreast with the developments, define and experiment with new design principles as virtual technologies expand further in the cultural consciousness of different geographies and cultures.
About the Author:
Himanshu Bharadwaj is a digital creative director in New York and Connecticut area, with expertise in crafting UX/UI designs. You can view his work at Epitomecreative.com. Himanshu’s mailbox is always open if you would like to work together, or just have something interesting to say.