What future users will expect from VR applications
When you are designing Virtual Environments (VEs) you may wonder if there is any given design suggestions or rules you could follow. And indeed, there is plenty of help online. You may come across titles like ‘Cyber Sickness and how to prevent it’ or ‘Immersion done right — the ultimate goal of reaching presence’. In my thesis project I identified and clustered such design suggestions, leading to 14 design principles for creating interaction models in VR. Among the researched suggestions are such as the Best Practices provided by Oculus, and the principles given in the magnificent Cardboard Design Lab by Google (it’s worth checking out if you are not already a fan of it!).
During the process of my thesis I talked to VR experts (VR researchers and practitioners) and possible future users of VR applications. The knowledge, visions and ideas of the experts pretty much backed the design suggestions I found online: VR constraints, usability issues, and user experience components added up to form one comprehensive set of principles. The experts’ ratings even helped form a valuable ranking. The outcome of talking to future users led to matching principles, too. Yet, it revealed one seemingly obvious aspect, one that I did not explicitly come across online nor encountered when interviewing the experts: Providing value for the user. And the outcome came with a specific description of what that actually means for VR, too.
…it revealed one seemingly obvious aspect: Providing value for the user.
Extracting what the user wants
*This is a short paragraph about getting to know what future users think and want. Scroll down for the full list of VR Value Principles.
My thesis started with an Ideation Workshop and a clear goal: Declutter the (hyped) information muddle that VR is today. Among the participants of the workshop were Human Factors students, techies and designophile folks, some having other professional backgrounds, too. The workshop lasted for about two hours and concentrated on three main tasks to be completed in small groups. All along, the participants were asked to question, discuss and dispute whatever came into their minds, as long as it covered VR or interaction design matters. An open minded, friendly atmosphere was key for the discussions to strive.
The tasks focused on shifting perspectives on everyday interactions (“How would you buy your cafe latte when there is no barista? What would possible interactions look like?”) and the perception of reality/virtuality (“How does a smell sound like in VR?”). The participants used different techniques throughout the workshop to collect and organize their ideas: Brainstorming, of course, but also aleatory techniques to raise new questions, mapping contents on a matrix, and building collages of personal mental models.
The results of the tasks very much demonstrate a changing picture during the workshop: Quite reluctant in the beginning, strong opinions and visions at the end. Every discussion was recorded. Specifically the final task, which gathered everyone around a central table and let them create pictures of what they thought interactions in VR should look like, was rich in discussions. In the end I ended up with a 24 pages transcript, six dazzling pieces of artworks (these were the participants’ collages) and hours of video material plus a ton of notes and pictures. Everything waiting to be analyzed.
Providing value — three particular principles for designing VEs
Altogether, and besides the workshop, I identified 14 relevant design principles when designing and developing VR apps from a designer’s perspective. The researched principles can be clustered from a VR system’s perspective, too, resulting in 17 VR design principles (if you want to know more on all the identified principles, visit this dedicated website).
In addition, the workshop provided three VR Value principles. These three principles are quite different in their nature compared to the other principles, and may not bear the same severity when it comes to practically applying them. After all, the other principles result from practice and iterative application, and usually arise from multiple developers or designers within a VR-centric company. Yet, they do bear severity in the means of understanding the user. And they may help understand what needs to be considered when designing VR interactions beyond only tech and usability relevant issues.
These three VR Value Principles are:
Question the limits of the real world
Virtual worlds allow questioning and changing any aspect of the real world. Anything a user dislikes can be altered, from physical laws to prevalent political systems. The only limit set may be by the human body, through which VR will still be perceived. Virtual reality allows to question real world set-ups and redesign them from the ground up for a virtual experience.
Establish a collection of virtual experiences
Working in VR will be linked to making new experiences. These experiences may differ from the ones made in real life, as VR allows for events that have never been experienced before. Yet, new experiences should not come with unbeloved barriers. Instead, new interaction models should be easy to understand and intuitive to use, making it easy to learn peculiarities of virtual worlds. New interactive patterns should be intuitive and easy to remember. The user should not be confronted with obstacles that hinder learning effects.
Leverage social interactions
Social interactions in VR could lead to better training and learning effects, for example by connecting remote areas. Additionally, virtual social interactions may allow for interpersonal possibilities and care taking that may otherwise be limited by disability or other restrictions. Social interactions can enhance virtual experiences through collective care and an exchange of knowledge. Individual disabilities may not matter anymore.
So what does that mean?
During the time I spend with VR research and development I very much got the impression that VR is still a techies-only thing. We VR people very much live in our bubble where it is about improving usability and UX of VR interactions, even though we might should ask what it is good for after all. We envision concepts that may lead to new areas of use, but yet only to show how creative we can get when we want to market a somehow-futuristic vision. There is often very little value in all those things. It seems that people design VR apps because they can, but forget to ask why they do it and for what reason someone should use it. This is not so much about getting people to buy into it, but to show them in which cases VR headsets actually provide benefits.
During my research process I have been to virtual museum exhibitions and learned how useful VR can be in psychotherapy. There is a hundred ways it can be used in useful ways, besides being only a gadget that connects to your gaming console. And this is where the VR Value Principles come in: They are not meant to be used for gaming or 360° films alone. They are meant to be used for finding usefulness in VR for a wider audience than just ourselves. We are already convinced at least in some ways. Let’s carry our excitement on and out to other people. And make it usable, experiencable, but in particular useful for them, too.
If you are interested in my thesis work I would be happy if you had a look at this little site. It lists all VR design principles I could identify during my thesis project. If you are a VR researcher or developer who has his/her own thoughts to share, you are kindly invited to contribute: I would like to build something that spreads our knowledge and our experiences from working with VR. So often I found people encountering the same problems in VR development over and over again. Let’s share, and let’s invite others to hop on the VR wagon. A website listing VR design principles is just a beginning.
*The first two images used in this article and the text passages containing the principles are outtakes of my thesis “Suggesting Design Principles for Interaction Models in Virtual Reality”, 2016, which is available on my website.