The Place Creates Rules of Behavior

Social Virtual Reality platforms are working to generate engaging experiences that draw people in and motivate them to return. It led me to wonder — what are the core elements what make humans feeling comfortable and stimulated and turns them into repeat visitors? To answer that question, I gave demos of social VR platforms to nine experts of spatial & social experience design and then asked them for their impressions. (Read the study’s introduction here)

Photo by Dean Hergert on Unsplash
Jessica: “You’re on a table.”
Participant: “Well, sometimes people like to dance on the furniture”

TL;DR Half of my participants ended up on tables on accident as they demo’d social VR and most of my participants felt confused as to what behavior is acceptable. The best virtual spaces created complementarity among content, affordances, and implicitly communicated behavioral norms to visitors.

Several participants in this study ended up standing on virtual tables on accident. Participants in the study tried to recalibrate their social norms and performance to fit the social VR worlds they visited. In the absence of a clear, well-understood context, participants were confused as to which of their social behaviors are appropriate and which are not; this includes the level of courtesy you extend to others, whether or not laying on tables is acceptable, and how you join others in conversation. Participants were unsure how to interpret the behaviors of others and felt unsure of their role. Many of the questions participants asked while experiencing VR were checking out what behavior was acceptable and what wasn’t.

Here is a collection of quotes to illustrate the key findings:

Space Type Creates User Expectations

Social expectation of a space type creates privacy. The reason why you can have a bathroom with a fairly little door and still feel comfortable enough to use the bathroom is because there are all of these social constructions around bathrooms. Going into that guy’s bedroom is strange because it felt like a private space. I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be in there. But I still walked around, bumped into things. In real life, you’d be like “oh my god I’m so sorry I just walked into your bedroom and went to your desk and started grabbing things.

Existing Social VR Worlds Send Mixed Messages:

If you’re going to be dropped into a lobby space, why would you insert a pool in there? It suggests you’re going to swim and hang out. You can’t randomly throw stuff in there like that.
It’s a museum, so not only is the thing itself formal, but it comes with the social connotations of there being ropes around things, and yet there is someone sleeping on the billiard table… maybe that is part of not being in the real world; you don’t have to follow the rules of the real world. But then the question is, what rules are you following and how is that determined?

You have to know the rules before you break them.

For example, people expect traffic on large streets. If it’s empty, you confuse someone:

When you go to a large city, the avenues are really wide which means a lot of traffic and people. vs. small streets means more residential, less traffic, more privacy. All of those rules still apply.

Without creating new context and new behavioral norms, the way to create the most congruent experience with the most predictable, manageable behavior is through creating a space that congruous in all of its elements:

The most engaging experience was the cartoon-y museum. It felt congruent. If I were an artist who made digital art, it makes sense to show it in a digital space. Just like if you’re a ceramicist who makes garden sculptures it makes sense to show them in a garden. I actually felt like I was in someone’s studio.

And that person continued on why, in this case, a personal space created a behavioral norm for her and signaled she should not climb the furniture.

That was probably the only space where, as I was navigating, I accidentally went over a table and noticed it. Whereas other spaces I’m like, oh a table. But here I felt like I shouldn’t go over the table. I felt like I was actually in someone’s space. It felt personalized.”

These examples illustrate the importance of aligning user’s expectations for the space with what the place actually delivers. It is comforting to users and helps them understand how to act when there is alignment in the content, the affordances, and the size of the space relative to activity type. This is a an argument for testing your experiences with a range of users so that you can check what assumptions they are make about your space and subsequently refine your designs.