An example of the Leap Motion in action (NUI using hand-tracking)

Get started with VR: user experience design

Adrienne Hunter
Mar 9, 2016 · 15 min read

VR: it’s like theatre in the round

In a lot of my own work, and the way I will talk about some of the topics here, I draw a lot of inspiration from theatre. In particular, theatre in the round is very relevant. Both VR and acting in the round have a lot of the same unique features, most notably:

  1. Deep connection and engagement with the audience due to the intimacy of the setting and proximity of everyone involved.
A maybe not totally inaccurate depiction of dropping new users into a VR experience

Drawing attention

When you’re given the freedom to move around and look at whatever you want, it can be challenging to get users to pay attention when you want them to. It’s easy to miss action outside your field of vision, or instructions/hints for how to complete a puzzle.


How everything is lit can help direct, guide, and hold attention. Spotlights are handy for pointing out specific areas / objects that you want users to focus on, especially if they come with a directional “turning on” sound effect. The way certain areas remain lit or unlit can provide passive information about where users are able to go or what they’re able to interact with.


Set design and environment design go hand-in-hand when you’re working in VR. Objects that the player directly manipulates with their hands the most should be facing toward the player and placed well within reach, making them easy to find.

Interactable objects highlighted in blue in Job Simulator by Owlchemy Labs

Audio cues

Audio provides a passive steady stream of information that tells users everything they want to know about their surroundings, including where everything is located and where the action is happening.

Henry, a VR experience from Oculus Story Studio that uses eye contact to increase the feeling of presence

What doesn’t work as well?

There are a handful of attention-grabbing techniques that are hit or miss, depending on how they’re implemented:

  • text floating around in the environment
  • static signs placed in the user’s field of view that try to convey vital info

Height and accessibility

The VR headset you will be working with places the camera at face-level for the person wearing the HMD. In some VR prototypes, it’s easy to guess how tall the designer was because every virtual object tends to get placed at the perfect height for someone exactly as tall as they are.

Wheelchair range of use while in the HTC Vive


It wouldn’t be a good user experience guide for VR without talking about virtual simulation sickness. This topic has already received the most amount of attention of any topic we’re discussing here.

There isn’t and will probably never be a one-size-fits-all answer to preventing nausea entirely for every user in every experience.

The single best thing you can do to avoid nausea is to maintain the ideal framerate that has been suggested by HMD hardware companies like HTC and Oculus: 90fps in each eye. Beyond that, it depends on the design of your user experience.

Room-scale and beyond

If you’re working on a VR experience that provides motion tracking, you will want to consider the space people have available at home or in their office, as well as what movements are possible with the hardware you’re making your VR experiences for.

A visualization of room-scale playspace using the HTC Vive


Teleporting is a solution that many have implemented, and seems to work best when it’s integrated into the environment. Show users where they can teleport to, or give them something that lets them teleport whenever they want to.

Teleporting as a seamless part of gameplay in Bullet Train by Epic Games

Moving the player camera

If your experience design requires the player camera to move independently of the player’s head, try using linear movement with instantaneous acceleration (no ease-in or ease-out). You can read a more in-depth exploration of why and how to design using linear movement from the developers of a VR game called Dead Secret. Here is an example of linear movement in action from an upcoming VR game in the Attack on Titan series.

Full-screen camera motion

A VR experience where users are piloting a ship or plane that moves through space with them inside can also spell nausea. Give the user a near-field frame of reference like a cockpit or the interior of your dashboard so their vestibular and proprioception systems don’t go crazy with all the contradictory information they’re getting visually.

Atmosphere and emotion

Because VR transports users so well into their new surroundings, the atmosphere and emotional impact of the virtual world will color the user experience heavily. Is the mood ominous or playful? Is the world close-quarters, or impossibly huge? High up in the air or underwater?

Object scale

You can also play with environment / prop scale to create a specific feeling. Small objects will feel cute and toy-like, easy to pick up with your hands. Bigger objects placed nearby will make users feel fenced-in, as if they have to lean or walk around them.

Environment & world setting

Transporting users to places they’ve never been also means being able to take them to beautiful locations. Think outside of the box when it comes to the environment your users are in and how it will influence their emotional state. If anything, VR is a chance to get creative and artistic with your environment.

User interfaces

In real life, a lot of the objects we use are part of the user interface of our environment, e.g. light switches. One of the best parts of VR is the enjoyment and immersion that comes from those same physical interactions we get in real life with objects that look and feel like the real thing.

Menu choices as physical objects in I Expect You to Die
2D menu drawn in 3D and attached to the controller in Tiltbrush

Bringing 2D into 3D

What worked for UI on flat screens and mobile devices might not translate well to virtual reality. 2D user interfaces commonly use abstractions of real objects, like buttons and switches, to represent actions you can perform. Since VR puts us inside a 3-dimensional virtual space, being abstract in the way we represent objects isn’t really necessary anymore.

A physical tablet menu in The Gallery by Cloudhead Games

Interaction triggers and feedback

The design of our interactable components is important and can be considered one of the most direct ways we can let our users know that their actions have had an impact on the environment.

Making virtual objects feel real

We’ve already gone over several different ways to help support the feeling of immersion, but I wanted to go over a couple of more specific design applications.

Can I interact with that?

Users view the virtual world the same way they view the physical world. If an object looks like it can be picked up, knocked over, or pushed, users will try to do so. Every effort should be made to allow for those interactions. Users being able to modify the environment by physically interacting with it helps create a sense of immersion.

To physics or not to physics?

Using physics as a foundation for your interaction design can provide realistic physical qualities to virtual objects. For example, we can use mass to make sure that heavier objects won’t budge when lighter objects are used to try to knock them over. NewtonVR is a free physics-driven interaction system for VR that uses Unity, a popular software and game development engine. Here’s a short video showing how a difference in mass affects object interactions when using NewtonVR.

Haptic feedback

If you’re designing an experience that uses controllers, you have the ability to make the controllers vibrate at strategic moments to provide haptic feedback.

Experiment, get messy, make mistakes

There’s plenty to learn still about what works well in VR and under what circumstances. Test your designs out with real people as often as you can. Get users who have little or no experience with VR, they will be able to offer a perspective that you might not otherwise get to hear from. People who haven’t seen what you’re working on will also provide good feedback on what’s working well vs what needs more work.

VRINFLUX dot com

A Medium syndication of

Adrienne Hunter

Written by

design director @ osso vr ❤ mountain hermit 🏳️‍🌈

VRINFLUX dot com

A Medium syndication of