At the Reese Innovation Lab, we’ve been working on multiple storytelling projects using device-based augmented reality over the past few years. Along the way, we’ve taken note of AR designs that feel good, and ones that don’t — but we haven’t established a strong set of guidelines for how to design for AR.
I took on these questions in my Senior Honors Thesis in the Hussman School of Journalism, conducting a usability testing study to see how real users interact with augmented reality. Seeking feedback directly from users would allow the Lab to produce better design guidelines for our AR projects and to identify ways to make sometimes-clunky AR experiences better.
I focused specifically on my own professional background in news data visualizations since newsrooms are one of the earliest producers of widespread AR content. While The New York Times, The Washington Post, Quartz, Time, and many others have experimented with AR, most newsrooms have focused on photogrammetry (a process of constructing a real-life 3D model from photos) rather than abstract data visualizations and graphics. Since abstract 2D graphics are already common elements these newsrooms’ print and online coverage, testing them in an AR context can help discover possible opportunities in a new format.
While there is well-established literature in 2D data visualization from academics and influential thinkers like Edward Tufte or Jaques Bertin, there is relatively little research into 3D data visualizations in AR. Existing studies focus on relatively narrow, task-driven AR designs (like data dashboards) as opposed to the style of visualizations most newsrooms use in storytelling.
To get a better understanding of user behavior, I designed a series of AR data visualizations about campaign spending during the 2020 primary elections. These visualizations, embedded inside a traditional reported article, were then loaded on iPhones and iPads and given to 23 participants in a user-testing study. By observing their behavior and interviewing users about the experience, I have identified five guidelines for the Reese Innovation Lab and other AR designers to consider in future projects.