Designing for Augmented Reality Apps

Alkistis Mavroeidi
Apr 10, 2019 · 7 min read

Lessons learnt from working with novel technologies

Part of the allure of working with emerging technologies like Augmented Reality is getting swept away by the endless possibilities. While indulging in imagined worlds of mixed realities and holographic interactions is perfectly acceptable, it can make it harder for creators to bring the focus back to the user. In this context, UX thinking becomes of pivotal significance for innovative products — whether they are a hype or they are here to stay may very well depend on how often the Product teams turn their eyes to the people they are designing for.

Augmented Reality is a technology I love and follow, since my very first steps as a UX designer happened in the realm of AR/VR start-ups. Naturally, I was very excited to assist in user testing KAYAK’s new AR feature. This new tool allows users of the iOS KAYAK app to measure their carry-on luggage with Augmented Reality and make sure it actually fits into the overhead space of the airplane they will be flying.

This project made me reflect on how User Experience for Augmented Reality can differ from that of conventional apps. Identifying these differences is important. As AR is maturing and becoming available to wider audiences, we will have to build a new UX toolkit for augmented reality interactions. It may lack familiarity at first but it will eventually be the necessary base for developing best practices that will ensure user adoption.

The layers of design influence

Layers of design influence

When creating a digital experience, the user interface design is your most powerful tool for shaping what that experience will be like. Traditionally, digital designers have complete control over the UI design, which makes us feel that we therefore have control over the end experience. The birth of UX came with the realization of this idea’s falsehood. As we put the user into the equation, we came to realize how important it is to connect the experience to the user. We started asking questions about who they are and how they are feeling in order to understand and design to accommodate them.

With Augmented Reality though, we get a new unknown parameter into the equation — the user’s environment takes center stage and influences their experience significantly. New questions get added to the creative process. Is the user indoors or outdoors? What are the lighting conditions? What are they pointing their phone at?

In AR, the digital world you create is not — and should not be — the sole hero of your user’s experience. It is also, their physical world, the items next to them, the people close to them, the physical target they are using. This is a huge amount of input that is entirely outside of the designers sphere of influence. As we compare this to traditional design, it becomes clear that the scariest part of working with AR is how much control you have to give up.

Giving up control means planning for the unpredictable, but it also means giving up real estate. Menus, navigations and messaging start taking as little space as possible to make sure the user can properly immerse themselves in the experience. This gives us the opportunity to reimagine a much more minimal interface, a trend that has been present in all smartphone technologies lately.

Remember who you are designing for

Persona segmentation

This would not be a proper UX article if I failed to remind you at least once that you are not the user. While being the user of your own app is a fantastic tool for developing empathy, there’s one certain difference between you and your users; you are an expert of your own technology. Your users… not so much. When it comes to AR applications, or any application that uses non-mainstream technology, the gap between creators and users becomes even more deep.

Let’s consider a Persona segmentation based on levels of engagement with AR. There are definitely a number of common features between these Personas. For example, they all use smartphones and they potentially access AR features through them. Another similarity is that the use of this new technology brings joy regardless of familiarity. It is exciting because it reminds us that the possibilities are endless — we really are just getting through the threshold of what Mixed Reality platforms can do for us. However, excitement over the feature does not guarantee success, as it can easily turn into frustration with the first technical hurdles. And this is where the differences begin.

Unfamiliar user trying to debug KAYAK’s AR feature.

Level of familiarity leads to different reactions when hitting a technical difficulty. People familiar with the technology knew how to debug the experience; make sure the camera better perceives the target or move back and forth to improve target surfaces interpretation. When user testing the KAYAK AR feature, we had a lot of unfamiliar users that actually took a much more physical approach to the process . They moved around the baggage, squatted around it, turned the phone upside down and even moved the target object to try to get all nodes around it. This is a pivotal observation to help us identify the kind of feedback we should give to the user to help guide them through the experience, and how we can use onboarding to help unfamiliar users.

Onboarding that actually works

If you are working in the UX field, you probably know how tricky it is for users to commit to reading instructions. A refreshingly positive observation about the use of KAYAK’s AR feature was that people consistently read the copy that guided them through the experience. Something about the clean interface, the lack of distractions and maybe the lack of familiarity with the technology, made them respond to both the visual cues and the copy that was given.

This is another point of opportunity for experiences of this kind — with the right narrative, we can onboard users in an unknown world because they are willing to discover it with us. Lack of familiarity becomes and advantage in this scenario; it slows users down enough to properly guide them through it.

Leave room for your users to show you the way

Testing the AR baggage measurement tool on a colleague.

When it comes to AR, there’s two types of unexpected interactions. There’s the unexpected interactions that come from unfamiliar users who try to get their bearings around this new technology. And then, there’s the ones that come from the irreverent, the users whose excitement makes them want to test the limits of this new Wild West. If there’s one lesson learnt from this article is that you should always user test with the people you want to engage.

If your work is in the start-up world, you probably have spent a lot of time creating perfect demos to show to your potential users as well as to your investors. While demos are a fantastic forefront of the ideal experience you are designing and selling, I’ve witnessed many people confusing the feedback they are getting from demos with real user testing feedback. The two processes are not interchangeable, in fact one could claim they are complete opposites. The demo is about the product. User testing is about the user.

A demo is a simulation of the creator’s ideal design — in a controlled environment he is presenting the way he would imagine this product best used and he is inviting the user into this experience. It is -and should be- designed to “wow” the attendees. There’s a level of excitement built into it by definition, which makes the user a little more patient with pain points, and a little more willing to imagine themselves using the product.

User testing on the other hand is not about the product at all; it is about the way the user is interacting with it. If done properly it should minimize bias that may be inputted by either the creator or the circumstances. While the you can never fully remove bias, follow the proper process of User Testing is helping minimize external parameters and make sure that you are discovering the right pain points or moments of thrill from the user’s interaction with the product. As you are reaching the threshold of innovation, this will be your most powerful tool.

So go and create, but always remember to look towards the people you are creating for.

Thanks to Kaijian Gao, Becky Chen, Lauren Ko and Trevor Elkins, the team that developed the AR baggage measurement tool.

Listen to me reminding AR enthusiasts to focus on their users here.

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