The User Experience of Virtual Reality

Human-Centered Design Principles for VR

Introduction

This article aims to provide some guidelines for the User Experience Design in Virtual Reality- specifically for Visual Design, Interaction Design and Design Research. It will address heuristics, definitions and guidelines from Dieter Rams, Jakob Nielsen, Jaron Lanier, Don Norman, Jeremy Bailenson, Brenda Laurel, Yasser Malaika and Jason Jerald about product design, digital design and virtual reality design. I have also pulled in some insights from other designers in the VR space including Mike Alger, Laura Cortes, Cyriele Piancastelli, Rebecca Torbochkin and Josh Carpenter. The goal with this article was a synthesis of modern UX trends in the VR space combined with classic design heuristics.

Ultimately, the findings boil down to 12 heuristics for designing virtual reality experiences. These are inspired by the readings from this article. I cannot take responsibility for the ideas, as many of them have existed in the design world for a long time.

Good Virtual Reality is…

  1. Honest — It allows the user freedom of choice, safety, exit, identity, and privacy without coercion or deception. It does not put the user in a Skinner box without their permission.
  2. Inclusive from start to finish — Designed and developed with a diverse design team. Tested against a diverse user base so that it is understandable and accommodating to everyone.
  3. Physically and digitally safe— It is designed to protect the user from damaging themselves, others, or their surroundings (and vice-versa) both in reality and virtual reality,
  4. Protective of the user’s wellness- Helps the users stay aware and recover from issues related to appetite, sleep, blood pressure, inter-personal relationships, errors, and/or attitudes within VR. It helps the user enter, experience, and exit virtual reality in a comfortable and mindful way.
  5. Understandable- It helps to guide the user and provides them with a means of understanding the world and it’s rules while instilling a sense of presence and wonder.
  6. Aesthetically pleasing — Provides a world that is enjoyable to see, live in and interact with while eliminating dangerous or extraneous features or entities that might negatively impact the user experience.
  7. Shapeable — It allows the users to make a dent in the world, or build into the world- all inside of virtual reality. New actors may be introduced into the new world so that it feels ever-changing and alive.
  8. Consistent- Makes use of conventions and standards in the industry or real world that users might already be used to. Provides consistent interactions and natural mapping in order to minimize user confusion.
  9. Meaningful and mindful- Helps the user do what they couldn’t do in reality, but not what they shouldn’t or wouldn’t do.
  10. Accessible- VR is an incredible tool for learning and developing new skills and should not be provided only to the privileged few. It should be reachable by others.
  11. Balanced in comfort and realism — The environment provides enough realism to instill presence while being comfortable enough to be enjoyable.
  12. Sensitive to the capabilities of the medium - Makes affordances accessible not just through buttons and modularity, but through the user’s body in ways that might not be possible in the real world.

Obviously these heuristics or guidelines cannot be extended into every VR application. For example, VR using 360 video is generally as realistic as possible while completely constraining user movement (though this could change). Medical VR applications like Mobius Flow find unique ways to prioritize user comfort since the users are dealing with chronic pain. (see: Maani et al., 2008). Budget and design constraints might not always allow for these heuristics- though they may be used to help guide an R&D roadmap for a minimum viable product.

What is User Experience/UX ?

User Experience (UX) is a broad study that draws influence from a variety of disciplines including Interaction Design (IxD), Visual Design (VisD), Usability, Content Strategy, User Interface Design, Information Architecture (IA), User Research, the list goes on… There’s really no single definition for UX, and the term for the discipline itself is interchangeable. Even the term UX is ambiguous, does User Experience Designer mean someone is a designer of experiences with a beginning, middle and end? Or is it creating a product that serves the experience without trying to control it?

Personally I choose to side with the second definition. To echo Don Norman, UX follows the philosophy of understanding people and giving them things they can understand, which provide value and pleasure. Whether or not that’s called UX is up to you. The field of software design has given rise to things like “dark [design] patterns” that might push the user to do something they otherwise might not have. The User Experience Designer is in this regard, a protector of the user’s well-being.

So now we are in the Second Machine Age of technology, The Fourth Transformation, Web 3.0/4.0- we are strapping technology to our faces while uploading millions of megabytes a minute to the internet. Moore’s Law has allowed us the beautiful new mediums of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality (and more surely to come) that can provide brand new bubbles of innovation and ways to help people enjoy and experience things they otherwise may not be able to. For those involved in creating the software for these new mediums, we cannot ignore years of design lessons from mankind’s technological wonders to upsetting flops. We have the development tools and developers eager to make visions of cyberspace a reality-

So I ask… how are we going to take the design lessons learned and taught over the past 50 years and extend them into this next wave of immersive technology that is on the cusp of becoming truly accessible?

This article will explore the User Experience of Virtual Reality and how being human, empathetic and iterative in design practices are leading to evolving conventions that the industry needs in order to move forward. It would be too much to go through everything related to the UX of VR in a single article, so I aim to provide a high-level overview of key concepts backed by guidelines from industry professionals..

Heuristics, heuristics, heuristics

I want to introduce some Design and Usability heuristics that have helped guide designers for decades. I want to encourage everyone to consider how these heuristics can be extended into virtual reality, or what heuristics exist in VR that might not exist for other products.

Dieter Rams

The famous Braun industrial designer, Dieter Rams, saw an issue with the design industry at large- and that was a lack of an answer to the question “What makes good design?”. In order to remedy this problem, Rams took a stab at assembling what are essentially the ten heuristics of good design.

According to Dieter Rams, good design:

  1. Is innovative
  2. Makes a product useful
  3. Is aesthetic
  4. Makes a product understandable
  5. Is unobtrusive
  6. Is honest
  7. Is long-lasting
  8. Is thorough down to the last detail
  9. Is environmentally friendly
  10. Involves as little design as possible
Jakob Nielsen

I cannot go into all of these heuristics in detail in a single paper- but I just wanted to make the point that people have been thinking about the question “what makes good design?” for a long time. Dieter worked mostly in the industrial design space, and decades later- one of the fathers of UI design, Jakob Nielsen proposed ten usability heuristics for digital interface design.

According to Nielsen, good Usability stems from:

  1. Visibility of system status
  2. Match between the system and the real world
  3. User control and freedom
  4. Consistency and standards
  5. Error prevention
  6. Recognition rather than recall
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
  9. Help users recognize, diagnose and recover from errors
  10. Help and documentation

Being usable is only one element of making technology accessible, but usability heuristics provide guidelines that professionals can use to create better experiences. Interaction design conventions are another element that evolve over time until they are so familiar to the end user that no instruction at all is needed to have them use them.

Principles of Interaction Design

It is worth providing an overview of some key terms relevant to interaction design in Virtual Reality. These terms were popularized by Don Norman in his book Design of Everyday Things. I pulled these definitions from The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality by Jason Jerald, PhD.

Intuitiveness — How simple it is for a user to understand how something works. Does it work as they expect it to?

Affordances — Define what actions are possible and how something can be interacted with by a user.

Signifiers- Any perceivable indicator (a signal) that communicates appropriate purpose, structure, operation, and behavior of an object to a user.

Constraints- Limitations of actions and behaviors either intentionally or unintentionally imposed on a design. Such constraints include logical, semantic, and cultural limitations to guide actions and ease interpretation.

Feedback- Communicates to the user the results of an action or the status of a task, helps to aid understanding of the state of the thing being interacted with, and helps to drive future action.

“ Cognitive scientists have long known that the human nervous system is very sensitive to changes in the environment. As a result, people are naturally curious. This sensitivity keeps us alert to environmental changes, both good and bad, that might affect us. It also allows us to notice novel patterns and opportunities. Curiosity is a great source of creativity.” -Don Norman, Triton Magazine

What is VR?

“The Mirror Reveals: In order for the visual aspect of VR to work, you have to calculate what your eyes should see in the virtual world as you look around. Your eyes wander and the VR computer must constantly, and as instantly as possible, calculate whatever graphic images they would see were the virtual world real. When you turn to look to the right, the virtual world must swivel to the left in compensation, to create the illusion it is stationary, outside of you and independently.” -Jaron Lanier

There are tons of definitions for virtual reality but one that I enjoy is Jeremy Bailenson’s (Stanford VR) definition “VR is an experience generator. Because it is a digital medium, anything we can imagine seeing or hearing can be easily generated in a VR environment.” VR uses combinations of computer hardware and software to represent different aspects of the physical world to an individual in real time. Optimal latency, rendering and tracking are a few elements that make this possible. A key design goal for virtual reality is to instill a feeling of psychological presence, or the illusion of being immersed in the environment, as opposed to simply viewing the environment from an outside perspective. (Clamann, 2017)

Virtual reality can help people experience places that are hard to get to, places that are gone, and places that are impossible to create in the real world. Virtual reality allows us to experience these places with friends- opening up new doorways for technology-assisted social experiences. Virtual reality is a more intimate way of making friends, allowing you to see more about a person’s behaviors outside of the chatroom experience. There are so many possibilities. (Torbochkin, 2015)

Jaron Lanier

A name that will be mentioned often in this article is Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL, the first commercial VR company, and is also credited for popularizing the term “virtual reality”. This article will feature quotes from his book “Dawn of the New Everything” which includes over fifty definitions for VR. Jaron mentions that the idea of VR can be traced back to before World War II, when the radical dramatist Antonin Artaud used the French phrase réalité virtuelle in his discussions of a “theater of cruelty”. What Artaud meant by this was a nonverbal form of theater that was intense enough to rouse depths of human experience and understanding beyond the reach of conventional language.

Note: Jaron Lanier referred to his favorite definition of Virtual Reality as a combination of Jazz, Theater and Programming in an interview with WIRED.

Two important terms to understand when talking about VR include presence and immersion. Psychological presence is the fundamental characteristic of VR. When it happens, your motor and perceptual systems interact with the virtual world in a manner similar to how they do in the physical world. (Bailenson, 2018)

“Presence is the sine qua non of VR” — Jeremy Bailenson

Immersion is a term that is used to describe the technology supporting or even fully stimulating the sensation of presence in a virtual world- hence, immersive technology. Presence has also been tied to empathy- which causes a sensation in VR where experiences might actually feel like they happened or are happening to you. (Shin, 2018) I’m sure there are many phenomena associated with presence that aren’t even being talked about yet.

Designers are finding creative ways to improve presence e.g. by using props to improve realism

Two important popular mediums for Virtual Reality include HMD (Head Mounted Display) and CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment). This article will focus more on the HMD experience which most people are already familiar with.

Interaction Design for VR

“Forty-third VR Definition: A new art form that must escape the clutches of gaming, cinema, traditional software, New Economy power structures, and maybe even the ideas of it’s pioneers” — Jaron Lanier
An HMD developed by Scott Fisher and Data Gloves by VPL became the first commercial VR hardware- developed for NASA.

Look at the picture above and tell me what you see being worn by the person in the picture. How does it relate to some of their senses?

For example…

Touch — DataGlove’s, as seen on the user’s hands.

Hearing- Headphones, as seen over the user’s ears.

Sight- Head-Mounted Display (HMD), as seen over the user’s eyes.

The photo above is from 1995, and though VR is more accessible now, the formula for consumers has not really changed. The purpose of the objects the woman is wearing is to stimulate the senses in a way that fools the brain into believing that something completely mediated by technology is real. Truly immersive technology is the ultimate magic trick. It is illusion. But when it is so compelling that it can not be distinguished from real life- that sensation is presence.

“Your most important canvas is not the virtual world, but the user’s sensorimotor loop. Stretch it, shrink it, twist it, interlace it with loops from other people”
 — Jaron Lanier

When what we are seeing does not match what our body is used to (e.g. it’s proprioception/familiarity with where it is in the environment) we become sick- our brain tells us to bail out. The brain cannot make sense of the world, it does not know how to behave in it. This is why the topic of latency is such an important topic and why only until recently HMD’s were powerful enough to allow a users to navigate a scene with as little latency as possible.

Navigation using eye-tracking, kind of makes you feel sick, right? It’s unnatural.

A lot of conventions in VR have come from the gaming industry- including the need to rapidly navigate a scene and complete objectives. This is why the one major issue of locomotion has been persistent in VR. This is why we need to start thinking outside of the box as designers when considering interactions in VR. How can we best take advantage of the medium and provide new forms of interactions not previously possible on the flat screen?

Interaction Design Guidelines from Valve’s Yasser Malaika

“Valve is one of the companies that leapt into VR in the twenty-teens revival. It might be the most charming of the batch and reminds me the most of VPL days. The company is also known for the Steam gaming platform.” -Jaron Lanier
Valve Software

Yasser Malaika is an interaction designer from Valve Software that is helping to define some of the core IxD conventions that will lead VR into it’s next evolution. The lack of conventions in the VR design space has left a lot of developers scratching their heads about what the best practices are for interaction design and visual design. In 2015, Yasser presented some of the lessons that Valve learned about Interaction Design in VR:

Guideline: Break-out the input streams, your hands aren’t wrapped around a controller anymore. In VR there is a natural mapping so take advantage of it. Allow the user to control things in ways that feel natural and exercise the potential of the environment.

Guideline: Be careful crossing the streams between interactions and user body parts. This can cause an ocular-vestibular miss-match. Avoid mapping movement to fingers which can make users feel uncomfortable or ill. Pointing or interacting with our head can be unsatisfactory because those areas of the body aren’t attuned to those interactions. Teleportation is an example of where crossing the streams works.

VR engages proprioception — The body’s sense of where the limbs are posed. Interesting experience that you quickly get used to…
Representation really matters- from the player’s sense, the user’s level of abstraction can impact the user’s expectations of the world.
-Yasser Malaika

Guideline: Gestures should be meaningful in order to avoid simulation fatigue. Beware of metaphors, accommodate the extraordinary. Users still want to have that effortless experience, but there’s still value for extraordinary experiences.

Classic IxD rules like Fitt’s Law still apply in VR for interacting with screens. But now, with more space!

Guideline: Exercise “Fitts Law”. Bi-manual pointer/target ambiguity becomes an issue with unbraced/unconstrained field of motion. This means that when you move, your virtual and real interactions need to be mapped in congruence.

Decoupling head movement from the body could ultimately decouple stomach contents from the body as well.

Guideline: Haptic feedback can help elevate the experience. When you touch something in VR, and you feel it, it engages your proprioception on a visceral level. This can help improve spacial awareness of the environment. e.g. a pulse triggers proprioceptive anchors. Friction, texture, vibrations and elasticity.

Guideline: Inattentional Blindness exists. Focus attention, alter perception, and take advantage natural human inattention.

Guideline: Minimize cognitive Load. Assist the user with translation, focus, memorization, and knowledge building in order to help them focus on the necessary and ignore the necessary.

Guideline: Performance Load. Be mindful of interaction, invocation, and error-handling. Keep the experience simple and steady enough as not to overwhelm the user.

Guideline: Bring interaction to agency to the user with the system, not vice-versa. Be mindful of physiology and variable rooms- the user might be confused if things change too quickly. Accommodate people with different abilities.

Yasser’s guidelines are helpful for understanding the lessons that Interaction Designers in VR have learned in the past. But what about upcoming trends in interaction design? Two that will be helpful in moving VR forward include Conventional locomotion and eye-tracking.

Wanted: Movement Conventions- Comfort vs. Realism and Free Locomotion

There’s an argument in the VR community today about providing the user with comfort versus providing them with realism. As you might expect, protecting the user is essential when the accessibility of the software is super high. Locomotion is a solid case for this argument- how do we provide users with the best way to move around a scene without making them sick? If movements are too realistic (e.g. using a joystick to navigate a scene) then our brain can become overwhelmed.

“People have a very low tolerance for rotational accelerations”. Vestibular disconnect makes people sick. Interactions lack consistency including for locomotion.” — Paul White, Antony Stevens (Cloudhead Games)

One thing to remember about VR is that you are essentially pulling a huge illusion over your brain. Your brain, when faced with a screen, is trying to make sense out of it’s surroundings with saccadic movements- small jumps from peripheral to peripheral, attempting to provide the brain with information needed understand and make sense of it’s environment.

A VR treadmill allows the user to maneuver a scene using their feet

On one hand, you don’t want to constrain the user in the scene to disrupt presence. On the other hand, you don’t want to allow so much freedom that the movements are simply too unrealistic for the brain to handle.they become sick. It’s a difficult battle. This is why a convention that provides a little of both (comfort vs. free locomotion) is necessary in order to move VR forward- because if a user cannot reach different areas of a scene without feeling sick- then what’s the point to designing everything else.

At the end of the day, ask yourself what you want your player to experience. Take the lessons learned, the methods you’ve enjoyed, and listen to the feedback from your users. Ultimately, those are the people who are playing your experience at great lengths, and can let you know what they enjoy about it and what they don’t. — Paul White & Antony Stevens, Cloudhead Games

Design locomotion for your users. Find out how they want to navigate. Currently, a popular method of navigating a scene if by using “blink” or “teleportation” controls which allow the user to maneuver a scene by jumping from place to place- providing comfort and realism.

Regular locomotion vs Blink locomotion

So I think a major goal with locomotion is to prevent our users from becoming sick. Allowing them to enjoy and take in a scene without confusing their brain to the point that it wants to drop out.

Eye tracking and virtual reality

Presence in VR can be improved through a variety of means, and sometimes this even starts outside of the virtual experience itself. The room that the user is immersed in may even play a role. But once inside VR, a lot of the rules that apply to industrial or digital products fall out. Having the user struggle to press a button on a user interface might frustrate the user. It also doesn’t take advantage of some of the powers of VR. Sure, buttons have their place and people do know how to use them, but that doesn’t mean that a VR UI should reflect a traditional UI in every case.

“Emphasize biological motion over rigid UI (user interface) elements that throw away most of what the body does. The worst offender is a button. Avoid button. Use continuous controls” — Jaron Lanier

VR (and XR in general) allows for a new form of interacting with objects- eye tracking software. Eye tracking software has existed for a long time and even allows designers to see areas on a screen a user is focusing on. But in VR, eye-tracking technology reads the user’s eye patterns and allows for new affordances simply by looking at things in the environment. The fovea is an area on the back of the retina which allows the user to focus on objects, understand or identify them, and reduce noise from background objects. By knowing what the user is looking at, the machine can save memory by focusing it’s rendering efforts on those objects.

Foveated Rendering in action
In addition to simply making VR interaction more fluid, Tobii claims that eye tracking will also allow for more efficient foveated rendering. That’s a technique that makes your computer devote most of its graphics power to what you’re seeing, while keeping off-screen content at a lower quality. — Devindra Hardawar, 2018

Accurate eye tracking delivers a better sense of presence, which is really the ultimate goal for virtual reality. (Hardawar, 2018) Eye-tracking can also be used to in the education space to measure a student’s focus and presence when learning about something in VR. It’s safe to say that eye tracking expands the potential of doing things that we could not do in the real world.

Going back to a previous point- playing with the user’s sensorimotor loop in a way that teaches them how eye tracking can be used to help them navigate a world will help them adapt these new interaction tools easily. It’s the experience you provide that helps them do that.

Visual Design in Virtual Reality

Visual design for virtual reality is a whole lot different than visual design on a common computer screen UI. Users can interact with an environment in virtual reality that were not previously possible on a rectangular screen. Some of the gestalt principals still apply, but for the most part the rules are entirely different. Laura Cortes and Cyriele Piancastelli presented on design in VR and they shared some thoughts that I really agree with. One is that a user Interface should be placed directly in the world versus on a 2D layer on top. Elements in the UI should move and scale based on head position. Draw indicators should be placed at the same depth than the object they’re targeting.

The overarching consequence behind a rigid GUI in VR is that it can disrupt a user’s sense of presence. However, a rigid UI does have it’s uses especially when being used as an assistive tool. Google VR’s Mike Alger spoke in an interview with the Voices of VR Podcast about a VR Interface Design Manifesto for ergonomic and productivity purposes e.g. a head-mounted display for work.

Some of the big things he reported on were the gestalt principals of design and their applications in VR. Gestalt theory was founded by Max Wertheimer at early 20th century. This psychological philosophy addresses with perception, perceptual experiences, and related patterns of stimulation. The motto of the gestalt philosophy is:

“The whole is other than the sum of the parts” —Kurt Koffka

When human perception meets with complex elements, we recognize the whole before we see the individual parts. As a designer if we understand these psychological principles, we can be more conscious during the design phase. (Gaal, 2017)

Mapping is another concept from UI design that can be extended into VR, where things that can be used together are typically grouped together in a way that makes them understandable. Gestalt principals are things we already know, they require little thought, and by that logic when they appear in VR we typically know what they mean.

Image result for gestalt principles
Gestalt principals

So for example, here is a link I made to an A-Frame site that shows the gestalt principal of Figure-Ground Segregation: https://foul-bongo.glitch.me/

The plane and sky are the ground, and the red ball is the figure. It can be distinguished from the background in a way that makes it noticeable.

The point is that gestalt principals can be extended into virtual reality. These allow users to understand how things they should be used in a way that feels natural or makes use of their predispositions. A lot of these design conventions extend from the game design industry, for example- contrast and motion cues can be used to persuade the user to turn their head. There are a ton of new possibilities inside of VR for visual design that have yet to be explored yet, but the basic fundamentals of visual design still apply. Designers should be mindful that the rectangular constraints of a computer no longer apply, and as conventional as they may be, there are thousands of new options worth exploring for signifiers and affordances.

“People are still the same, humans are still the same, if you don’t guide them, if you don’t give them the necessary help, people will get lost no matter what.”
— Cortez & Piancasteli

Echoing Alger’s presentation- we can also rely on insights from disciplines like architecture, industrial design and interior design to help with visual design in virtual reality. There are many design principals that can be grasped from other disciplines, or even nature, that can exist in VR that were not previously possible.

Some of the simplest conventions that we might take for granted no longer exist. Reaching back to Nielsen’s usability heuristics, VR needs a visibility of system status. An issue being explored by the WebVR community is the lack of a search bar- How do we know where we are in VR? Especially when hopping between experiences?

Companies like Leap Motion are suggesting new ways that users can access knowledge inside of VR using tools like gesture tracking. This affordance allows the user to access knowledge in ways not possible in the real world.

A GUI by Leap Motion

Guidelines for Designing VR

Before composing the heuristics I wanted to share for virtual reality, I want to share some of the guidelines for VR Content Creation by Jason Jerald in his book The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality.

High-Level Concepts of Content Creation

Experiencing the Story

  • Focus on creating and refining a great experience that is enjoyable, challenging and rewarding.
  • Focus on conveying the key points of the story instead of the details of everything. The users should all consistently get those essential points. For the non-essential points, their minds will fill in the gaps with their own story.
  • Use real-world metaphors to teach users how to interact and move throughout the world.
  • To create a powerful story, focus on strong emotions, deep engagement, massive stimulation, and an escape from reality.
  • Focus on the experience instead of the technology.
  • Provide a relatable background story before immersing users into the virtual world.
  • Make the story simple and clear.
  • Focus on why users are there and what there is to do.
  • Provide a specific goal to perform.
  • Focus on believability instead of photorealism.
  • Keep the experience tame enough for the most sensitive users.
  • Minimize breaks-in-presence.

The Core Experience

  • Keep the core experience the same even with an array of various contexts and constraints.
  • Make the core experience enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding so that users want to come back for more.
  • If the core experience is not implemented well, then no number of fancy features will keep users engaged for more than a few minutes.
  • Continuously improve the core experience, build various prototypes focused on that core, and learn from observing and collecting data from real users.

Conceptual Integrity

  • The core conceptual model should be consistent.
  • Make the basic structure of the world directly evident and self-explanatory.
  • Eliminate extraneous content and features that are immaterial to the intended experience.
  • Have one good idea rather than several loosely related good ideas. If there are too many good incompatible ideas, then reconsider the primary idea to provide an overarching theme that encompasses all of the best ideas in a coherent manner.
  • Empower a director who controls the basic concept to lead the project.
  • The director defines the project, but is not a dictator of implementation or data collection.
  • The director should always give full credit, even when others have implemented his ideas.
  • The director should be fully accessible to the makers and data collectors, and highly encourage questions.

Gestalt Perceptual Organization

  • Use gestalt principles of grouping when creating assets and user interfaces.
  • Use gestalt principles of grouping at a higher conceptual level, such as keeping objects simple and temporal closure.
  • Use concepts of segregation- ground acts as a stable reference and figure emphasizes objects that can be interacted with.

There are many other guidelines in The VR Book worth looking into. I have only included these here since they are general enough to be incorporated into higher-level heuristics. You can probably already see the overlap that these heuristics have with other heuristics and guidelines from this article.

Iterative Design, Process and Ethics

This section is going to briefly cover some of the core methodologies for User Research and how they can be extended into VR.

Storyboard, iterate and learn

“Fight against impulses you internalized in film school. VR is not cinema. For just one example, the watcher becomes invisible in a movie, but not in VR. The navigable virtual world is less important than the body of the user. What does she see when she looks at her hand? In a mirror? If the answers are modular- not central to the story- then you aren’t yet designing for VR.”-Jaron Lanier

Storytelling has been a part of UX Design for a long time and helps designers understand and map a user journey. A story can be used to help build out use cases. As User Experience Designers we are often ask to research how people might experience the product- we then translate those tenets and attributes into use cases that help move the user journey farther.

Eventually, the design team might begin sketching out storyboards of different use cases in order to help visualize the user in the scene and how they might use the product. But how can storyboards be drawn when a virtual reality environment completely surrounds the user? Storyboards for 2D UI’s with X and Y axis had the constraint of being displayed on a rectangular screen, but the addition of a Z axis leaves questions unanswered about the best way to communicate the design of virtual environments as well as how personas should be represented inside of these environments.

Above: Rudi Liden’s wide screen frame compared to the ultra wide frame of virtual reality.

User Research inside of VR

User research is a multi-pronged subject with research methods applied to different design settings. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Most ethnographic research methods are completely accessible inside of VR, including:

  • User Interviews
  • Fly-on-the-Wall
  • Usability Testing
  • Touchstone Tours
  • Simulation Exercises
  • Shadowing
  • Participant Observation
  • Heuristic Evaluation
  • Graffiti Walls
  • Focus Groups
  • Eye Tracking
  • Exploratory Research
  • Diary Studies

All of this is possible inside of virtual reality at the fraction of the cost it takes to run these methods in real life. Any user with an HMD can literally become a fly-on-the-wall, allowing them to analyze a user’s behavior like never before.The goal of user research is to uncover qualitative data surrounding user goals, behaviors, motivations and frustrations and quantitative data such as the amount of time it takes to complete a task.

Virtual Reality and Persuasive Technology Design

Virtual Reality can be so immersive that user’s presence in the system may lead to persuasion. In the late 1990s, the psychologist B. J. Fogg (at Stanford University) suggested persuasive technology as a field to study any interactive information technologies intentionally designed for changing users’ attitudes or behaviors. Persuasive systems have been defined as computerized software or information systems designed to reinforce, change, or shape attitudes or behaviors (or both) without using coercion or deception. Persuasive Systems Design (PSD) requires the intersection of psychology and software design.

Some of the lessons learned from psychology are that people like their views about the world to be organized and consistent, persuasion is often incremental, and the direct and indirect routes are key persuasion strategies. Software design requirements are equally important. For example, persuasive systems should be both useful and easy to use, which is much easier said than done, and persuasion through these systems should always be transparent and must always be unobtrusive to a user’s primary tasks. (Persuasive Technology, Harri, 2014)

Persuasive technology design in VR is even more frightening because the technology is so immersive. The phenomenon of presence opens new doors for coercion of deception that even the software developers might not be aware of. Virtual reality has the potential to change human behavior, which is why it’s such a great tool for education and training. It also has it’s darker and more evil side- such as being used as a Skinner box.

Virtual Reality as a Skinner Box

“Thirteenth VR Definition: The perfect tool for the perfect, perfectly evil Skinner box.” — Jaron Lanier

Virtual reality has the potential to be the ultimate behaviorists toolbox. When presence is so intense it can allow behaviorists to study human behavior at little to no cost- all at the expense of the subject. If a company can study users with a microscope, accumulating (or even selling) their data, manipulating their experience, or even the user themselves, without the user even knowing it, then they have successfully exercised control over people. I strongly discourage this method of VR design and find it unethical. That being said, it has it’s uses for a research tool- but no tech company should be able to control or study people in this sort of way.

The Matrix: Science Fiction serves as a nice harbinger for this sort of technology.

Virtual Reality is for everyone

“Test your world with diverse people. Better yet, add diverse people to your team. Cultural background, age, sex and cognitive style have a bigger impact on how people take to VR than to other media. Make sure you understand how your design fits into the broader landscape of human cognitive style, because that’s the only theater in which it means a thing.” — Jaron Lanier

A big topic in UX these days is inclusive design, both within organizations and user research. This includes extending a design team to be as accommodating as possible. The field itself is so young, and innovations in the space are happening so rapidly that the design of the medium itself or it’s conventions should not be so strictly defined. This means that this document could be completely obsolete in the next year. But, the methods of improving design itself, for the global community doesn’t change.

Incorporating a diverse design team of people from different backgrounds is one way of uncovering ways of improving virtual reality for the masses. If anyone says that virtual reality software is just for one select group, then take a look at those who are designing it and challenge their diversity.

Accommodation extends throughout everything, from design to delivery. Making VR accessible allows for people to learn about the benefits of VR from anywhere in the world. It has already proven it’s worth as an educational and training tool. VR as a tool is something that has hardly been harnessed or grasped, this is only the beginning (thanks Moore’s Law). It allows us to do so much and costs so little. This same argument extends to the web as well.

“The science of VR is young, so question received wisdom about who VR is for. If you’re told VR works better for men than women, you should wonder if that’s because the virtual worlds tested were designed by men.”

Design Heuristics for Virtual Reality

I want to use Jaron’s recommendations for VR design as a backbone behind some ad-hoc design heuristics for Virtual Reality. I also want to combine them with Dieter Rams and Jakob Nielsen’s design Heuristics as well as some of the other findings in this paper. These are not ranked in any order or hierarchy, but should all be considered when designing for virtual reality.

Good Virtual Reality is…

  1. Honest — It allows the user freedom of choice, safety, exit, identity, and privacy without coercion or deception. It does not put the user in a Skinner box without their permission.
  2. Inclusive from start to finish — Designed and developed with a diverse design team. Tested against a diverse user base so that it is understandable and accommodating to everyone.
  3. Physically and digitally safe — It is designed to protect the user from damaging themselves, others, or their surroundings (and vice-versa) both in reality and virtual reality,
  4. Protective of the user’s wellness- Helps the users stay aware and recover from issues related to appetite, sleep, blood pressure, inter-personal relationships, errors, and/or attitudes within VR. It helps the user enter, experience, and exit virtual reality in a comfortable and mindful way.
  5. Understandable- It helps to guide the user and provides them with a means of understanding the world and it’s rules while instilling a sense of presence and wonder.
  6. Aesthetically pleasing — Provides a world that is enjoyable to see, live in and interact with while eliminating dangerous or extraneous features or entities that might negatively impact the user experience.
  7. Shapeable — It allows the users to make a dent in the world, or build into the world- all inside of virtual reality. New actors may be introduced into the new world so that it feels ever-changing and alive.
  8. Consistent- Makes use of conventions and standards in the industry or real world that users might already be used to. Provides consistent interactions and natural mapping in order to minimize user confusion.
  9. Meaningful and mindful- Helps the user do what they couldn’t do in reality, but not what they shouldn’t or wouldn’t do.
  10. Accessible- VR is an incredible tool for learning and developing new skills and should not be provided only to the privileged few. It should be reachable by others.
  11. Balanced in comfort and realism — The environment provides enough realism to instill presence while being comfortable enough to be enjoyable.
  12. Sensitive to the capabilities of the medium — Makes affordances accessible not just through buttons and modularity, but through the user’s body in ways that might not be possible in the real world.

Obviously these heuristics or guidelines cannot be extended into every VR application. Budget and design constraints might not always allow it. But they can be used to help guide an R&D roadmap for a minimum viable product.

Conclusion

User Experience and Virtual Reality are both rapidly-evolving subjects. Their definitions change as the industry does as new visual design and interaction design conventions are introduced. Innovations in the space are happening so quickly with companies like Leap Motion, Google, HTC, Valve, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and practically every other big tech company carving out their position in the market place. For this reason, it’s really important that when the market is more defined, designers are familiar with how to create great experiences that can be cherished.

I hope that this document provided an overview of the User Experience of VR along with the evolution of design guidelines and heuristics. Virtual reality is by no means a new subject, but evolution and Moore’s Law have finally allowed it to enter the market in a way that’s commercially viable- pushing innovation in the VR/AR/MR space even further.

Create awesome experiences.

Take care of the users.

Be mindful of the medium.

Thank you.

Sources

Bailenson, Jeremy. “Practice Made Perfect.” Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018. 19. Print.

“Talk UX 17 Designing For Virtual Reality — Laura Cortes And Cyriele Piancastelli.” Talk UX 17 Designing For Virtual Reality — Laura Cortes And Cyriele Piancastelli, Talk UX, 29 Mar. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hM1AnOqaE-w.

Maani, Christopher et al. “Pain Control During Wound Care for Combat-Related Burn Injuries Using Custom Articulated Arm Mounted Virtual Reality
Goggles.” Journal of CyberTherapy & Rehabilitation 1.2 (2008): 193–198.

Shin, D. (2018). Empathy and embodied experience in virtual environment: To what extent can virtual reality stimulate empathy and embodied experience? Computers in Human Behavior, 78, 64–73. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.09.012