Building a design team that can create compelling products for VR, AR, or MR

Credit: pexels [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

My opinions are my own, and do not reflect my company.


Whenever I introduce myself as a designer, the first thing people want to see is my art.

I always laugh and say, “I am a designer, but I can’t draw.”

It is a matter of time before virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) take over as the next evolution of social and entertainment platforms. Because of this, many companies are exploring these spaces hoping to be the next market leader to capture a piece of the pie; however, many of these companies are diving head first without a deep understanding of how to build a design team that can create a successful product.

For mobile or web content, you could “get away” with hiring a skilled Visual Designer. Or, you might have gotten away with stacking your entire design team with just User Experience (UX) and Visual Designers. However, as products got more complicated and companies got larger, designers began specializing into various design disciplines. Nowadays, for many VR/AR/MR projects — even small ones — it is much harder to succeed with just UX or Visual Designers because of how complex these types of projects have become.

Just like there are numerous types of engineers who have specializations across dozens of programming languages, there are numerous types of designers and each have different strengths and weaknesses. Here is a quick preview of some of the disciplines within design, their strengths, and their typical tools and deliverables:

  1. Visual Designer: arguably the most well-known design discipline, everyone typically thinks of beautiful assets when they think about “design.” Visual designers are focused on the defining a brand or product’s unique style and voice; they are problem solvers that figure out the look and feel of your product using tools like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe InDesign. Visual designers can further specialize in areas like graphic design (focused on the creation of print designs and deliverables like posters and brochures) and UI design (focused on the creation of user interface elements like layouts, logos and icons). In game development, visual designers can also specialize in areas like concept art (focused on rapid, iterative sketches of characters, environments and other content), and 3D modeling (focused on the creation of 3D characters or objects). Visual Designers are not as concerned with how screens of a website connect to one another, or how users interact with the product; instead, you might hear Visual Designers talk about precise, “pixel-perfect” layouts and the creation of beautiful icons, logos, and other visual elements of the product.
  2. User Experience Designer: UX Designers are focused on how users interact with your product, and how to make a product easy and efficient to use. For every feature in your product, how can users interact with it? How does a user navigate to a particular part of a website? How does a user add another user to their Friends List? How does a user take a snapshot in the application? How does a player change weapons in a game? UX designers typically create low-fidelity graybox wireframes that quickly illustrate how a product works through tools like Sketch and Axure. They might also deliver personas (the creation of a fictional person that fits the target demographic so the product team always understands who the product is designed for), or specialize as an User Researcher to conduct user research(where they design experiments for external users to better understand and optimize the user experience, or better understand user needs for particular product). UX Designers typically focus on rapid iteration through low-fidelity wireframes, and leave the “pixel-perfect” deliverables to Visual Designers.
  3. Systems Designer: focused on the architecture and data structures that drive features in a product, Systems Designers tend to be a bit more quantitative than a typical designer. They are focused on creating Design Documents for complex features such as how a video game decides to pair players together for a game through a multiplayer matchmaking system, or how a recommendation engine comes up with suggestions for an eCommerce website. For a social experience, a Systems Designer might define how you match users together on a dating platform. For a game, they might create Design Documents that describe a leaderboard system, achievements system, or ranked ladder system. Their deliverables often contain algorithms, quantitative models or spreadsheets full of data created with tools like Excel or Matlab.
  4. Game Designer: probably the second most well-known design discipline, Game Designers are focused on all aspects of design related to creating a video game. One of the most important aspects of game development that a Game Designer oversees is the Core Game Loop, which is typically defined as the repeatable series of actions that make a game fun to play. Over the past few decades, dozens of Game Design sub-disciplines have spawned including Level Designer (focused on the layout and creation of levels), Tech Designer (game designers who can also code using various programming languages), Character Designer (focused on the creation of characters and their “kits”, for character-driven games where characters have different abilities), and Content Designers (focused on the creation of consumable content, such as a raid boss in a Massive Multiplayer Online Game). Depending on the sub-discipline, Game Designers will use tools such as Google Docs, game engines such as Unity or Unreal, and presentation tools like Google Slides or Keynote to create their deliverables whether they are Game Design Documents (GDDs), or presentations for a new game.
  5. Social Designer: social design is a pretty new design discipline that has emerged over the last decade. Social Designers focus on improving the social or human experience in a product. Over time, more and more companies have learned that the social aspects of their product are core drivers of growth, stickiness, and engagement. Social Designers focus on any feature, system, or experience where multiple users are interacting together in an activity. They often contribute to Design Documents with tools such as Google Docs, and presentation tools like Google Slides or Keynote. Right now, you will find most Social Designers employed at platform companies such as Facebook or Google as they explore ways to improve their online social experience through features or systems that can reduce online harassment while improving social interactions between their users. Other than social platforms, you will find Social Designers employed at game studios focused on multiplayer experiences such as Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMOs), and Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games (MOBAs).
  6. Product Designer: this is going to be a controversial definition, but the meaning of Product Designer has recently been evolving in many industries. Product Designers are focused on the holistic product, and how every design discipline converges to create the best possible product. These days, they are typically well-versed in at least 2 of the other design disciplines and can individually create all deliverables for those disciplines. In addition, they are at least familiar with all design disciplines and all design deliverables involved in creating the product. They have also begun acquiring many skills typically seen in Producers and other production roles such as a strong understanding and ability to execute developmental processes like Agile, and strong people skills. On many product teams, Product Designers have become the “lead” designer, entrusted to lead and encourage close collaboration with all the other design disciplines on the product team.

The most important thing about building a design team for a new product is understanding the strengths of each design discipline. For a social platform, one possible composition for your ideal design team could be:

  • 1 Social Designer acting as your lead Product Designer
  • 1 Systems Designer
  • 1 UX Designer
  • 1 Visual Designer

For a complex video game, your ideal design team could be:

  • 1 Game Designer
  • 1 Systems Designer
  • 1 UX Designer
  • 1 Visual Designer
  • 1 Game Designer focused on Level Design

If you build a design team that lacks the necessary skills for your product, you will most likely create a sub-par experience. Mismatches in skill are currently magnified in VR, AR, or MR because there is already a challenging learning curve for every design discipline as they learn how to adapt their design skills over to these new mediums. This is why you should never ask me to create beautiful “pixel-perfect” assets for your product (I specialize in Systems, Social, Game, and UX Design!); but, conversely, this is why you should be wary asking a Visual Designer to create a Design Document for a recommendation engine for discovering new friends on your social platform.

As a general guideline, most VR, AR, or MR products will require at least:

  • 1 Product Designer (who specializes in at least 2 disciplines directly related to the product such as Systems, Games or Social)
  • 1 UX Designer
  • 1 Visual Designer

Hopefully, this article helps you build a design team that can create the next successful product.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jeffrey Lin, Ph.D.

Dr. Jeffrey Lin is currently a Design Director at Magic Leap, leading design teams that are paving the way for the first generation of mixed reality content. He was a Lead Product Owner and Lead Designer of the award-winning PC game League of Legends at Riot Games, one of Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For. He was also a Research Scientist and User Researcher at Valve Software, makers of the award-winning PC game Portal 2, and creators of the Steam platform. He obtained his PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Washington where he was funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His design work has been featured in Wired Magazine, MIT Tech Review, The Verge, Scientific American, Times Health & Science, and Re/code. His research has been featured in numerous peer reviewed journals, including Nature.

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