Less is More: a UX approach to Virtual Reality

Looking to push the boundaries of my UX/UI designer learning path, I took part in an exciting design thinking journey to create the interactions for a virtual reality showroom. From all the encounters and constraints that are unique to this medium, until the reward of achieving 1st place on the final Hackshow from Ironhack.

UX design team

The Challenge

The two weeks project was a collaboration with Grandpa’s Lab, a visual creative studio from Portugal. Léonard and I were tasked by them to conduct research and design the interactions for a virtual reality showroom for a brand of safety shoes.

Designing for VR

Being an architect, it was not the first time I was confronted with designing in 3D. In fact, space is the core of architecture. I have created countless sketches and both, physical and virtual models, of my projects while putting myself in the shoes of the end users. Some of the design decisions were even made while the stakeholders experienced the models with the headset on.

Designing for VR is a similar process to the one for architecture. The users immerse into a new world as if they were right there, able to look in any direction and tempted to interact with their surroundings. It brings the concept of depth and field of view to the traditional UI design.

There are though, other challenges that are unique to this medium. I want to highlight one that has a major impact: the movement of the camera in VR can cause vertigo and make some people motion sick. This happens because while you are standing still, the virtual environment around you is moving, so the brain receives conflicting signals, affecting its equilibrium and therefore making you feel nauseous. A comfortable and efficient locomotion experience is essential to reduce the impact of these constraints.

People like Alex Chu and Mike Alger have identified codes of comfort that need to be respected. Chu’s research determined viewers’ usable range of view and head motion. He defines two concentric rectangular guides he calls the “comfortable range of motion” and the “maximum range of motion”. Mike Alger combines the HMD’s field of view with Chu’s work and provides additional guides, as you can see below:

Mike Alger and Alex Chu’s codes of comfort for VR. Source

Empathizing with two distinct groups

The VR showroom is meant to be presented mostly to shop owners, entrepreneurs and other business people who attend shoe fairs to look for brands of shoes to be sold in their store.

For the user research process, it was important to empathize with both people that work in the shoe retail business, which were our target users, and people that are familiar with interacting with VR. With this second group, we had conversations about adapting our work of UX/UI designers to a platform that was new to us. One example was an interview that we had with an employee of Facebook Reality Labs, that shared with us his experience and how, in our role, we can convey our ideas to the rest of the team.

User research methods

Through an empathy map, we’ve started to lay out some of the pain points of the users:
- The amount of shoe models and colours displayed in the fairs is limited;
- It is tiring to travel to other countries to see new collections of shoes;
- Most VR showrooms are a copy of the physical shop and its interactions are not that intuitive.

Giuseppe, the persona that we have defined, is a fashion shop owner that has been in the industry for more than two decades. He travels very often to shoe fairs but has lost some interest as he states that most of them are boring and redundant.

User persona

We have envisioned how he would be walking bored at a shoe fair and the way he would react towards our product. Giuseppe would be curious to try this new way of experiencing a shoe collection, and after seeing value in it, he would get excited to make a deal with this brand.

User journey

At this stage, we were able to define the problem that we were being confronted with and the hypothesis statement.

Problem and hypothesis

How might we create an intuitive and comfortable navigation system for a virtual reality showroom?

We looked at a video that the studio sent us with the scenario that they were building. Instinctively we questioned whether the interactions seemed natural or required some higher level of effort from its users. One of our concerns was that the point and click to buttons on the floor could take attention from the main purpose of the showroom. The user would have to focus on pointing to the right spot for a certain amount of time until reaching the desired perspective of the shoe.

The prototype developed by Grandpa’s Lab

Before diving into the ideation and prototype phases, we found it fundamental to create a SWOT analysis based on our research. This helped us on defining the strengths of this medium for the purpose: unique, practical, creates brand engagement and recognition. On the other hand, if not done correctly, it can look unprofessional, and new users can be prone to motion sickness.

By looking at what other businesses and competitors are doing, we’ve found out that many virtual reality showrooms are made from 360° photos, which means they look the same as the physical shop. One of the competitors that we interviewed even admitted that, within her company, they are not using the full potential of immersing into a new world.

Business & competitive analysis

Interactions in Virtual Reality

From our analysis, most of the interactions are often just 2D elements floating on the field of view, almost as if they were placed on a flat touch screen. In some cases where the user has to utilise more buttons from the controllers, it is not intuitive and therefore requires time for the brain to associate each button to a certain action. Just like in the physical environment, the interactions with objects should feel natural, otherwise, most of the focus goes towards the interaction itself.

As of now the main way to interact with the virtual world is through controls. We have tested with some users that have never tried a VR headset before and found out that the most intuitive one is the grabbing mechanic of the virtual hands.

The human ergonomics and the comfortable head movement angles were key factors during the ideation phase. For that reason, in the lo-fi, we sketched a closed field of view. The main buttons to get closer to the shoe would be in a front panel and the possibility to change it to another model or colour could be accessed with simple head movements to the right or left sidewalls.

Lo-fi prototype

After some reflections, we recognized that having a dashboard placed in different horizontal and vertical planes within several parts of the field of view would be too heavy for a user that is not familiar with VR.

Just like a theme park experience

The process of research and taking the heuristics into account, was continuous throughout the process. A master thesis from Kirsten Kischuk in 2008 about interactions in theme parks brought us to the importance of narrative-based interactivity to engage the users. People like to use buttons that resemble them to real-life actions. Designers of theme parks consider this. So we agreed that following the concept of gamification could create a strong brand engagement.

The mid-fi prototype expressed some of the decisions. For example, the button to zoom in and out would be similar to a lever, and the colour selection would be through rotating a radial menu.

Moodboard and mid-fi prototype

Simplifying

Looking to promote an intuitive user interface, we came across Hick’s Law, which states that the time it takes for a person to make a decision increases as the number of possible choices increase. Just like the phrase adopted in 1947 by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more”. A good example is Apple. In 1998, they innovated by creating the click wheel, a 2D element that let its users have full control of the iPod. People could even use it without looking at the screen. An advantage compared to the touch screens of nowadays that require more attention of our eyes.

Following up on this approach, and to simplify our concept, we idealized the motion sphere. Utilising the most intuitive interaction from the user testing, the grabbing mechanic, the user grabs this 3D element in the virtual world and moves it accordingly to how they want to admire the shoe displayed in front of them.

Concept

To test how this new concept would be received by our target audience, we’ve asked them how they would move their hands on a physical sphere to explore the different sides of a shoe that we were holding on the other side of the room. The users were able to succeed by doing simple gestures.

User testing

With the user flow, we have defined which other menus and actions were required during the experience.

User flow

Hi-fi prototype

The final prototype consists of two parts: the entrance to the VR showroom and the experience of getting to know a specific shoe.

The first was done on Figma using interactive components. For the second one, we have used Unreal Engine to create a scenario inspired by a shoe that would resemble a construction site. This was the way we found to best express our work to the stakeholders and present it on the final hackshow of Ironhack, where we were voted the best UX/UI Design project.

Hi-fi prototype presentation at the Ironhack’s Hackshow

Conclusion

The process of designing for virtual reality brings encounters that many UX/UI designers haven’t experienced before. While it was a challenge to think beyond the flat screens, it was also an opportunity to bring my 3D spatial skills from architecture into practice.

The immersion into a new world can be a mind-blowing experience, but it can also carry inconvenient outcomes with it, if not well planned and tested. Interactions in VR will certainly continue to be debated several times in the future. It’s up to people like me, designers, to continue the design thinking process and target the main pain points of its users.

Grandpa’s Lab understood the value in how the idea of the motion sphere simplifies the whole interactions’ activity. Due to their timeframe, it was not possible yet to implement the concept.

The next steps would be to continue iterating on our ideas and prototype while prioritising what's possible to be achieved within the time to present it to the client. Then, to be truly effective, the VR showroom must be tested with potential users in real-time. The level of interaction needs to form part of the person’s feedback to understand whether we are designing a comfortable and enjoyable experience.

UX/UI Designer & Architect, based in Berlin, nmoreira.com