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UX pointers for VR design

This article is tailored for VR designers & devs who are creating full-room VR setups, but may not have the opportunity to do lots of user demos.

timoni west
Nov 10, 2015 · 13 min read


Too busy to read this whole thing? I feel you. Here’s the big takeaways.

  • Always explain unusual button mappings. If you don’t, users will think your experience is broken — they will not always mash buttons like they do on game controllers.
  • Use animated text or audio cues to explain interactions, button mappings, and gameplay. Don’t use static text unless it’s huge. HUGE.
  • People don’t have a perfect sense of their physical self, and VR amplifies this. It’s very hard to draw a straight line in 2D, but impossible in 3D; knowing where your arm really ends is also difficult.
  • Give users feedback that they are being tracked, and everything is still working. Haptic feedback is helpful here.
  • Try out all the new crazy stuff you can think of. VR is a blank slate, intuitive interfaces aren’t obvious, and now’s the time to think big.

The demos I’ll be referencing

Here are the apps I most often demo, roughly in order of frequency. I reference these a lot in the post below, so if you’re not familiar, you might want to take a second to check out the mechanics.

  • Job Simulator: A game in which you perform menial tasks (and throw things). (Owlchemy Labs)
  • TheBlu: An underwater simulation. (Wevr)
  • Fantastic Contraption: The VR version of the classic 2D building game. (Northway/Radial games)
  • Aperture Robot Repair: A structured cinematic experience with game elements, set in the Portal universe. (Valve)
  • The Gallery: Six Elements: A RPG puzzle/adventure game. (Cloudhead Games)
  • Final Approach: Another VR remake, this time of the classic air traffic control game. (Phaser Lock Interactive)
  • Chunks: A Minecraft variation with a roller coaster. (Facepunch)


Here’s a few points to keep in mind before you start reading.

  • I appreciate that some of the demos are games and designed to be a bit tricky, and I’ve accounted for that in these findings. If I mention it here, it is not a failure of overall game design, but simply hardware or affordances.
  • I’m not going to go over the basics of VR UX in this article. User comfort, avoiding sickness, presence, frame rates, proprioception and space are the basic building blocks of VR UX, and if you are unfamiliar with them, here are some useful resources to read first: Oculus Best Practices, Unreal Best Practices, The VR Book (excellent resource), and LeapMotion’s blog.

Key observations.

1. Give users time to orient themselves.

Users are generally too busy orienting themselves to their new environment to notice or do anything specific for at least 10 seconds, so don’t force them to dive right in to the action. Oculus Story Studio mentioned this phenomena in their talk at Siggraph 2015. For their first short, Lost, they ended up designing something called an ‘in’ to recreate the settling in that naturally happens when one watches movies or tv: the dimming of the lights, the settling into the chair. Christopher Alexander liked courtyards for the same reason, as a space between spaces, a bit of mental preparation.

2. A huge percent of users simply do not read static instructions.

No big surprise here, since users never read anything. In fact, kudos to you for continuing to read this post. But it is still a bit surprising to see just how much people ignore instructions, considering how obvious they are in VR.

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Fantastic Contraption doesn’t require a lot of instruction, but has handy signposts explaining the basics.

3. Controllers are a tricky beast.

The Vive’s controllers are new and unfamiliar: they do not feel like an xBox or Playstation controller, for example, and they don’t have a joystick.

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Buttons on the HTC Vive’s hand controllers. The small squares on the tops and side are sensors.
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In Aperture Robot Repair, set in the Portal world, your controller is skinned and simplified.
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In Fantastic Contraption, your controllers are wooden version of the real-life controllers.
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In The Gallery: Six Elements, your controllers are gloved hands, with which you can pick up and use objects & weapons.

4. Most users’ sense of movement is slightly off. VR makes this more obvious.

The two-dollar word we’re looking for here is proprioception, and it has to do with how we normally gauge distance and our physical bodies in space. For example, you know about how long your arm is: you can pick up a glass of water easily without having to double-check from all sides.

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From Glen Keane: Step Into the Page

5. Users seem to learn best from audio cues.

On some level, this makes sense. Often tutorials in games involve someone telling you what to do: in quest form (the old village wise man showing you how to user your sword), as a narrative arc (the boss on the intercom, telling you there’s a poisoning), or simply a HUD when you’re about to enter battle for the first time, telling you to hit the X or Y button.

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6. Encourage users to move around as much as they can.

First-time user don’t move around very much: they’re either afraid of tripping on wires, or they just feel a bit weird in a space that doesn’t match reality. To counter this, Skyworld forces users to move off a solid platform into ‘thin air’, which feels odd, but is a reasonable learning mechanic. Fantastic Contraption is impossible to play without moving around to build your creation, and the UX is so seamless users don’t notice they are forced to move.

Final thoughts

You may have noticed that I didn’t talk much about heads-up displays, peripheral interfaces, floating inputs, and other glamorous cinematic VR UI tropes. This is because none of the demos people like most have them.

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The best toolbox-slash-pet a VR user ever had, in Fantastic Contraption.

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This lady knows what’s up

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