Augmented Reality and the Need for Human-Centric Design

Robots may not be coming to take your job, but the technology of human machine interface will be integral to the human experience… from work, to the road, and into the home in the very near future. It is with this understanding of the role of technology today and tomorrow, that human-centric design takes center stage to drive innovation and development.

For starters, what is human-centric design?

The purely data-driven Amazon packaging room is designed for robots, not humans. The organization of over 15 million inventory items doesn’t need to make sense to a human, so toothpaste doesn’t have to be next to toothbrushes. What does matter is that the robots get product to the humans for packing as efficiently as possible. The human interaction is a final step in the journey.

Human-centric design is, as you might surmise from the name, design focused around the needs of humans with the intention of positively impacting their lives. And why is it important? Human-centric design can lead to increased productivity, improved user experience, and reduced discomfort and stress.

Augmented reality is a human-centric medium. It’s a technology that helps people adapt to technology. We must focus even more deeply on the human involved, because it’s not simply relegated to a screen anymore, it’s coming into a more human space. It’s part of your world and your environment. Once we start to interact in an environmental medium that surrounds us, we should be cognizant of the way people process and interact with their world. This puts the person at the forefront of the design needs.

Design principles to consider

Step one, research.

Some simple questions to start your process before and during the research phase:

  • What are you making?
  • Why are you making it?
  • Who are you making it for?

This may contextualize preconceived notions or biases, but also reveal preferences that you can test against the larger group. One of the most important, if not the most, is understanding who you’re designing for. Understand the values of your audience so you’ll create tools and experiences they’ll appreciate, they’ll use, and that will work for them.

Another design consideration is Raymond Loewy’s principle of MAYA — Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable. You want to design something as advanced as possible, but if it’s too advanced, your audience won’t understand it.

For example, before the iPhone came out, there were Windows CE phones. You could surf the web. You could do most things that you could with an iPhone. You could probably even do more things. But it wasn’t acceptable to the public because you had to use a tiny stylus and the operating system wasn’t made for small screens, so things were too compressed visually. This lead to it not being accepted by phone consumers. In additional to acceptability, take into consideration accessibility and utility. Simply put, from the phone example, if the buttons are too small for your fingers to press, you can’t access it.

Designers must also consider when it’s the right time to break a paradigm as well.

  • Is it accessible?
  • Is it acceptable?
  • Is it something user’s are going to be comfortable with?

Consider how the gestures on smartphones like swiping and double-tap, which may seem natural now, broke the old paradigm of desktop or laptop interactions when introduced. The first experience that people had with an iPhone taught them “swipe to unlock.” There is a real world gesture correlation — a slide lock, latch, opening a window — so it was mentally accessible. Once the paradigm was broken, additional functionality was slowly rolled out. Smartphones first had to limit new interactions, so as not overload the user, but after a few years, they started adding more things like double click the home button to see all open apps or swipe up from the bottom (Apple) or top (Android) to see your tools and connection options. Had the later two thing been introduced right away, people may have had a harder time understanding the concept of swiping to scroll up and down a website. It’s interesting because, when rolled out slowly, we don’t even notice these things happening as they progress into our muscle memory.

Human constraints require human considerations

Beyond being a human-centric medium, AR is also a visual medium. Occlusion is one factor for a fully immersive experience. Ergonomics is another, considering placement and how much you would want a wearer to move their head. Additionally, how much content should be placed relative to field of view to maintain peripheral vision, not obstruct the view of the real world, and maintain safety? One design adjustment to accomplish this could be the levels of transparency of imagery. The difference between a natural field of view and the artificial one created by a device must also be considered. The rendering depth of where the UI is placed is important as well. If placed too close, your eyes would converge.

In addition to these software considerations, the hardware must be approached with the end user in mind as well. Size, weight, placement of peripheries, and natural gestures are all factors. A good resource for some of these considerations is Henry Dreyfuss Ergonomics charts. To design for a body, you need to understand the body, how it wants to move, and what constitutes comfortable movement.

Once a design is in place, the iteration begins. First, test on yourself, but the key is to not be solely self-referential. Designs have to work not only for you, but for your audience. Feedback, through testing, is a big part of the design process. This ultimately confirms that you do, in fact, understand your audience.

As technology continues to advance beyond the cutting edge, it will become more and more important to design products with people in mind in order to make the interface between human and machine as effortless as possible. A thoughtful, considerate approach can ensure accessibility, which leads to adoption. Understanding your audience is paramount.

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