UX Guidelines for Virtual Reality

Designing for VR is like entering relatively uncharted territory. With consumer headsets hitting the stores last year, the market is growing and changing and there will be increasing opportunities to develop experiences for this medium. How do you design for something that has no established design patterns? How do you transition from flat 2D screen-based design to the 3D worlds of VR and AR? There is very little out there to help designers who are new to this medium. While there are many similarities to screen-based design, immersive worlds require thinking about the user in new ways, even for the seasoned UX professional.

We recently completed a lighthouse prototype for a client, our second experience designing for VR. While I can’t tell you anything about that project, as part of the process we spent many hours in VR, doing heuristic analyses of VR experiences to get a feel for what worked, what delighted and what made us feel sick. Out of that we developed a series of best practices for UX design for VR, which guided our design decisions and direction. During our prototype development we user tested our thinking, from this we converted our heuristic professional best-guesses into a series of guidelines that we find work for users. For each guideline I have included an example of a VR experience that resonated for us. Get your headset on and try them out.

VR is 3D, so use 3DUI

So many of the experiences we tried took screen-based paradigms directly into VR. These flat, panel-based interactions were hard to use and looked strange against a 3D background. Step outside of your habitual ways of thinking and explore how you can make your interactions a seamless part of the VR world you are creating. In user testing our 3DUI delighted users and were a definite wow moment. If you want to try out an experience that will stretch your thinking and approach to UI, The Lab is a great example of how 3DUI can be leveraged to generate presence for users.

Robot Repair shop that is part of The Lab experience uses effective 3DUI for interactions Image source

3D does not have to mean skeuomorphic

You can’t go far in VR experiences before you hit skeuomorphism. Avatars and environments that try to be too real tumble into the uncanny valley, and feel weird and disturbing. You can create a credible world that users love and that evokes presence without having to make it super-real. As long as your world operates with its own logic and is consistent users will suspend disbelief and become fully immersed. A great example to try out for this is Land’s End. The world is elegant, using simple textures and color gradients with stylized forms to create an environment that is as peaceful as it is captivating.

Land’s End presents a beautiful stylized world that evokes presence Image Source

If you must use flat UI, consider ergonomics

Sometimes a flat panel is the most efficient interaction. If there are multiple menu layers, or a lot of different options it can be more efficient to contain them together in one place. When you choose flat UI, positioning a panel at 90 degrees to the user makes it hard to reach all the options. If you think of a mobile device screen, even though it is flat you can hold it in your hand at whatever angle works for you to most easily use it. We found angling flat panels at 60 degrees to the user resulted in a more natural feeling interaction that was easier to use. Make sure your user can easily reach all the elements on your panels. Consider how you might trigger the panel: should it be continuously present, or something you pull up when needed? This choice should be based on user needs. Tilt Brush uses a flat panel UI that can be positioned at any angle, or detached and pinned in space in locations that work for the individual user.

Tilt Brush UI features removable panels that can be angled and positioned as needed in 3D space Image source

Empower users to move

One of the sources of delight for users in VR is exploration of new worlds that take them beyond what they know. Allowing users to control their own movement is critical in ensuring that they do not get sick. We found having users teleport to fixed points that placed them in an optimal position for that part of the experience was most effective, particularly for those not familiar with VR. Think carefully about what that movement will be like: gliding users around slowly is a sure fire way to get them tearing off their headsets and reaching for a bucket. Give them options beyond teleportation to get around your world: portals and menus can work just as well. However it is triggered, motion is better when it is instant and self-initiated. While Google Earth made some of us feel sick, we liked that it provided users with options for locomotion that could be adjusted in the settings.

Google Earth allows users to adjust their locomotion settings for greater comfort image source

Connection is compelling, but can get weird

Co-presence in VR is a great experience. Our VR team is scattered across the globe, and being able to be together in VR space takes the experience well beyond anything a phone or video call can do. It’s like Skype on steroids. Allowing users to experience VR together is captivating, but you need to consider how to keep your users safe. We tried out most of the social experiences out there, and one of us had the misfortune to have an unpleasant encounter with some insulting behaviors. If you are going to create social spaces, think about what is private and public, how you can give users a sense of agency and allow them to proactively create an environment in which they feel safe. Rec Room, for example provides users with a ‘talk to the hand’ function that allows them to mute or block others in their social space. Or make social spaces by invitation for contacts only, like Facebook Spaces.

RecRoom uses a ‘talk to the hand’ gesture to mute or block other users Image Source

Consistency and affordances

As in screen-based UX, make sure that your interaction paradigms are consistent and use affordances to indicate how to interact with them. This is particularly important with 3DUI: how will users distinguish between what is part of the world, and what is an interactive element? How will users know how they should interact with these elements? How will you make them easy to learn? Making 3DUI reference real world objects is an obvious way to do this. Robo Recall is a fun, fast-paced game, where the user has to fight off an army of defective robots. Futuristic-looking guns are instantly usable, but the user is also encouraged to be creative: combining weapons, or even using their virtual hands to tear robots apart. It is immediate, immersive and visceral. None of us needed a tutorial to understand how to interact with this world (although some us allegedly scored higher than others. Just saying.).

In Robo Recall users can tear robots apart and turn them into projectiles, allowing the them to interact with the game in consistent and creative ways that map to affordances in the real world Image source

Support user emotions

One of the most powerful aspects of VR experiences is the emotional impact they have on users. While considering user emotions is important in screen-based design, it is crucial in designing for VR. Color, texture, shape, space, volume; how your interactions respond to users; what environment they are in all help shape the emotional landscape of your VR world. Use these elements wisely, and make sure they support how you want users to feel while in your experience. Resident Evil 7 Biohazard creates a truly terrifying experience by using first person action in a dark, grungy house. Confined low lit spaces, blood splattered walls, jump scares, doors that open to rooms that may or may not be empty, all make for a classic survival horror experience that is too scary for some.

Resident Evil 7:Biohazard uses low lighting and grungy textures to create a creepy environment that is very scary Image source

First or third person?

Point of view can be critical to the kind of experience you are trying to build. While first person experiences are inherently immediate and immersive, making your user a third person observer can be equally powerful when done with consideration. Witness 360: 7/7 is a documentary exploring a survivor experience of a major terrorist incident: the London 7/7 Tube bombing. This experience demonstrates how observation, using a third person perspective, can build a powerful empathetic connection with events and experiences that are not our own.

Witness 360 7/7 places the user in the position of passive observer to generate empathy and understanding Image Source

Look after your user’s physical body

Beyond motion sickness, what your user’s real body might be doing is another thing to think about when designing for VR. Can they still use the experience if they are sitting or lying down? How will they reach things that are behind them if they do? If your experience is intensely physical how will you stop users from crashing into physical objects while immersed? Headsets such as the Vive and Oculus have proximity cages that can be toggled on and customized for your physical space, but this did not stop one of us from crashing into a wall when fully immersed in Robo Recall (fortunately only their dignity was hurt). Users hack their way around this by buying a rug and playing in bare feet so they get sensory feedback when nearing a physical edge while in immersive experiences. Do you prevent users from moving at all? Or allow them to teleport freely around your world so they never have to take a physical step.

What happens if your user wants to complete the experience lying down? Senior Designer Jennifer Lebeau in our SF VR lab testing a build for user comfort. Image credit: Justine Sun Dela Cruz

Understanding what works and what doesn’t for users in VR is still being fully understood. We are currently developing our third VR experience, and find these best practices are helping us build increasingly effective experiences quicker. We fully expect that we will learn more as we do more work in this area. What works for your users? What VR experiences do you love and why?

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