4 Things I learned Designing User Interfaces for VR at Disney.

James Hsu
Startup Grind
Published in
5 min readSep 12, 2016

The VR design space is 🔥🔥🔥.

The VR Space is heating up real quick. Here’s a few grab and go learnings I picked up on my first VR project. These learnings are applicable to both the mobile device VR environment as well as higher end headsets.

Quick Intro

I was fortunate enough to have been presented the opportunities to grow at the right times and had just the right skills. Where this led me was on the product team as a lead UI designer at Walt Disney Studios working on Disney Movies VR. This project was a team effort, and I was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to contribute to it.

1. Print design is relevant to VR design

VR is an interesting space to design for because it’s this overlap of technology, visual design, and interface design. Where it differs is the approach. Having experience both in graphic design and UI design, I can tell you VR is a strange mix of the two, and is kind of more relevant to print design than anything else. Yes you are designing for a ‘screen’ but things designed in space are 100% relevant to your spatial relationship to it. Screens, and specifically typography lend themselves very much so to the same relationships you would find and leverage in the real world. I found myself asking questions like “How big should this type be to be readable?” only to realize later that these precedents existed in billboards, posters, and even books. When it comes to design, one can never get away from typography, and when it comes to typography in space, virtual or real — it’s all about the readability and communication.

tl;dr — Print has solved this for the real world. No need to reinvent the wheel for the virtual world.

A Billboard for a Coca-Cola Ad, and the Oculus UI

2. Be Strategic with your targets

The tricky thing about VR is the method of input. During my time at Disney, we optimized for gaze based navigation, assuming that our users would have limited or no input capability at all. This means that the crosshair/reticle/cursor was also your button click if you hovered over an interactive object long enough. The challenge this presents is making sure your users don’t fall into a black hole of button clicks as they’re browsing through your information architecture. We intentionally designed our UI to be out the cone of focus after users invoke a specific action. This encouraged even more intentional actions for invoking and accessing VR content.

tl;dr—Users might gaze naturally in the center after invoking a thumbnail. Putting your targets out of the natural gaze position will prevent accidental clicks.


We had 2 paths for invoking our VR content

3. It’s important to mock it up in VR

Mock ups and comps are great for soliciting team and stakeholder buy in, but the only way to truly dog food what you’ve designed is to throw your design into VR space. You give yourself permission to see it in the world it’s designed to be in. Size, space, colors are suddenly being consumed spatially and really give you an opportunity to be critical with the work you’ve done.

While stumbling through this process, I cobbled together a workflow that let me crudely view flat mocks as a spherical skin in my Google Cardboard viewer. There’s still a huge opportunity for prototyping in this space as there currently exists a large void. At Disney, we were fortunate enough have our engineering partners facilitate this by providing prototyping software for us to view our flat UI designs.

tl;dr — Design comps are great, but you really need to see it in a headset to get an idea of what you’re designing.

Some random scale testing I was working on at the time.

4. It’s all about the feedback

Visual, auditory, haptic — I’d argue that feedback becomes even more critical in VR because of the low barrier to distract a user. Where previously UI design’s limitations were viewport, VR opens up an entire world to be interacted with. Buttons and links can now look like portals, objects, and regular old desktop items. This is where I think game design becomes largely relevant. It’s important to surface feedback in some form and to do so consistently so users understand what “rules” they have for invoking objects and actions. Also important after establishing your visual language and rulebook is to remain consistent with it. No one wants to figure out why your buttons are 2 different colors.

tl;dr — Give your users some feedback when they’ve hovered over something interactive. The more the better, because a VR environment can be pretty distracting.

Some unused design directions, we opted for scale, color, and animation.

Wrapping it up

If you’re a designer in the VR space, there’s still a lot of great design thinking to be had, these are just some I stumbled upon. For the most part the principles of design still apply and are probably more relevant than ever. Have any other awesome thoughts or insights? I’d love to hear them (seriously).

Be cool, and leave a comment below.

— Me

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James Hsu
Startup Grind

Director of Product Design @ FabFitFun, Speaker and Friend.