Photo by Wenjun Zhao

Using virtual reality to build empathy in distributed organizations

Ron Goldin
Aug 7, 2017 · 5 min read

User research in 360 degree VR

Try walking in my shoes

Not too long ago, I visited Tokyo. I was doing research for UberEATS, and was trying to understand how doing deliveries differs in various international markets. One afternoon, I met with a bike courier and tagged along as he was doing deliveries in Roppongi, a dense neighborhood of ultramodern residential and commercial skyscrapers. I captured the ride–along with a portable VR (virtual reality, 360 degree) camera to share back with the organization at large.

Over the course of one particular trip, I learned the hard way how a tricky drop off address can add a lot of extra time and headache to delivery trips.

Here’s what went down:

  1. The courier arrives at an expansive courtyard of skyscrapers.
  2. Confused about where to go, he tries to contact the customer.
  3. He speaks with four security guards in two different buildings.
  4. He goes up and down lots of escalators.
  5. Fifteen minutes later, he hands the food off.
Above: Screen captures of a VR 360 video in which I tag along with a courier as he attempts to navigate a series of tricky skyrises in Tokyo’s Roppongi district to drop off a meal.

Digging into data, our team could assemble charts and graphs that point to the fact that challenging delivery drop offs sometimes take longer than they should. But experiencing the feeling behind those numbers helped us internalize just how frustrating the experience was for drivers.

If a tree falls in a forest…

… does it make a sound?

Research that doesn’t get heard, didn’t happen.

The challenge many researchers and designers face is synthesizing complex amounts of information, distilling it down to actionable takeaways, and providing the inspiration for teams to take action.

Empathy connects the heart with the head. It helps us feel what someone is going through, and inspires us to act to improve a product or service for the larger subset of customers that experience this pain.

So how do you enable organizations of tens, hundreds, even thousands of employees to share the experiences of their customers, first hand?

Capturing a feeling w/ 360 degree video

I’ve been exploring using virtual reality cameras to bring first hand research to everyone — product, design, engineering, marketing, executive leadership, city teams, support. The problem I was trying to solve was twofold:

  1. Still photos are limited: It’s really hard to tell a story, especially one that involves interactions, in a series of still images without the heavy use of narration or annotation.
  2. Standard video forces a perspective: When you shoot normal (directional) video, you are forced to point the camera at some things, and not others. With 360 video, you can record in every direction. This is extremely helpful for exploratory research, so you can put the camera aside, be in the moment, and capture anything that happens along the way for later review.

Watch us pick up food from an UberEATS restaurant in Mexico City in 360.

Tip: Try clicking around in a browser or moving around your phone via the YouTube mobile app.

Getting started with VR

Getting started with your 360 degree video experiments is easier and more affordable than ever. Below are some of the tools that are on the entry level side, if you want to start getting your feet wet without a lot of spend.

Shooting 360, affordably

The Insta360 Nano (<$200) is what I use to shoot from my iPhone 7 Plus. It’s cheap enough and small enough that I feel compelled to bring it everywhere I go in my pocket. The Nano is so small, I’ve gotten away with throwing my phone into a shirt pocket with the camera peeking out and walking around, and forgetting about it while I immerse in new places. Plus, because it plugs directly into your iPhone, you can upload over the air or even live stream. The image quality is good enough for research, though there are definitely higher quality cameras if you’re willing to shell out some more dollars.

The Insta360 Nano — about the size of a stick of gum.
A simple bike mount solution.
A bendable suction cup to attach to car windshields, and any other surface.

Viewing 360 (for free!)


Good news: you don’t need expensive gear to view 360 videos.

In fact, you don’t even need a physical viewer to immerse in 360 videos. Video platforms like YouTube allow you to upload your video so anyone with a computer can enjoy it. On a laptop, you can click around in the video to explore your surrounds (see example above). Even fancier, on the YouTube mobile app, you can rotate your phone around the room to change the vantage point.

Try this interactive example of my visit to Tokyo at night on YouTube web (click and drag) or mobile (tap the 3D icon and move your phone around).


There are also tons of extremely affordable viewers (<$15) that allow you to slide your phone into a simple pair of lenses, so you can fully immerse in the experience. This experience as the most immersive, as you can look up, down, left, right and behind you.

Work in a remote office? You can buy a few pairs of these and send them to some of your teammates as a gift without breaking the bank.

Left: a simple cardboard viewer. Right: a slightly more robust viewer. ($5–15 range)

Hopefully you’ll be inspired to record and share your next adventures with your team. If you have any inspiring examples or solutions, drop me a line or a comment here.

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put people first. Work with us: Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.

Ron Goldin

Written by

Product Design @ Google. Ex-Uber, Ex-Microsoft. Views are my own. Work at

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put people first. Work with us: Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.

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