Illustration by Tridib Das

Virtual reality (VR) is an emerging technology that is showing up in many aspects of design, providing new experiences to users while creating new opportunities for how people work and interact with each other. As the growth of VR continues, it’s being increasingly used in industries like health technology, museum exhibits, video games, workplace training, and more.

The growth and popularity of VR in design is making it an important skill to learn, so we’ve put together a few best practices for VR to learn more about what it is and how to begin integrating VR into your designs.

Woman wearing virtual reality goggles and viewing a cosmic landscape.
Woman wearing virtual reality goggles and viewing a cosmic landscape. Image credit Adobe.

What is VR design?

Virtual reality is a relatively new technology that allows a person to enter an immersive digital experience by wearing a VR headset. People navigate through this virtual experience, often holding controllers in each hand. For a fully immersive experience, users can opt to wear haptic technology that enables touch and feel within the virtual environment, in addition to a VR treadmill that allows a user to walk around more naturally.

The VR experience can feel completely immersive for the user. They can look around 360 degrees, interact with virtual objects, and even hear the difference between sounds that are close versus those coming from far away. It is a wonderful tool that can do everything ranging from giving storytellers a new way to tell their stories, to providing surgeons the ability to train without risking patient safety.

Another technology that is on the rise is augmented reality (AR). Although it has some similarities to VR, the two are actually quite different. The next section will discuss the difference between AR and VR.

AR vs. VR

Augmented reality and virtual reality emerged around the same time. Both technologies use a type of device that is worn, so it is understandable why the two are often confused for one another. But there is a difference in AR vs. VR.

Simply put, virtual reality in design uses a combination of hardware and VR design software to place the user within a simulated environment. Augmented reality uses a similar combination to overlay computer-generated graphics and information over the real world. A user in VR will feel as if they are in a completely different reality, while an AR user will feel as though the real world around them has been enhanced. 

Benefits of VR in design

One of the major benefits of VR in design is how immersive and effective it is at stimulating some of the same senses that you use in the real world. This extraordinary benefit can give designers a new way to enhance the user experience (UX) for a product or brand. 

For example, take a look at the car manufacturer Volvo. They discovered a limitation that was preventing potential customers from test driving their cars was due to the distance between where they lived and the closest Volvo dealership. To overcome this physical barrier, Volvo launched a virtual reality experience called Volvo Reality, which allowed people to use a VR headset to experience what it is like to sit in the driver’s seat of a brand new Volvo without having to even leave their home. 

How can I use virtual reality in design?

There are many opportunities to include VR in web design. To effectively use VR, one must first determine how virtual reality design can be used to elevate the experience for the user. Here are a few ways VR is used in design:

  • Employment training
  • Vehicle operation training
  • Surgical training
  • Education
  • Architecture modeling
  • Real estate walkthroughs
  • Psychological treatment
  • Virtual tourism
  • Interactive film experiences
  • Video games

User experience in VR design

Designing user experiences for VR may seem fairly different than designing for a website or an app, but the same general principles still apply. A design for virtual reality still needs to provide people with a positive UX, which if done incorrectly, can lead them to experience a slew of issues and gaps. To avoid this, a VR designer could use quality assurance methods like Jacob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics, which provides designers with a set of 10 guidelines to evaluate a design to help improve the overall user experience.

The usability heuristics will also be important to refer to when designing the VR user interface, which is a vital element of a virtual reality experience because it is the main thing a user interacts with to navigate the world, menu, or other features. If it is not designed from a human-centered perspective, then the whole experience can quickly deteriorate.

In addition to the usability heuristics, there are a few principles a designer should be aware of that are specific when learning how to design for virtual reality. 

Principles to consider when designing for VR

Designing for virtual reality involves a thoughtful approach for how the user will experience and interact with the environment you built for them to explore, which you may want to plan out first using available prototyping tools

Designers don’t have total control over how the user will choose to interact with the virtual world, but the VR environment itself can provide clues to the user on how to move through their journey. 

An example in the real world is to imagine how a venue like an art museum is set up. Although planners and designers cannot control how a person walks around and experiences the space, they can use the objects within the environment to help guide visitors by:

  • Thoughtfully arranging artwork on the walls
  • Pointing lights to specific places
  • Placing benches in areas where they want people to stop
  • Choosing certain colors for the rooms
  • Giving direction with arrows on the floors or walls
  • Playing a certain type of music throughout the exhibit

All of this is done to help enhance the experience of the art museum without limiting how a visitor chooses to explore it. Now, take that example and apply it to a virtual design. VR design works best when it’s interactive, explorable, immersive, and believable:

  • Interactive. VR is all about interactivity, which means allowing users to not only move around the virtual space but also pick up, move, or throw objects. These interactions should produce a similar experience in the virtual world as they would expect in the real world.
  • Explorable. Virtual reality in design should provide as much freedom as possible for the user to explore an environment in a similar way as they would explore a new room in the real world.
  • Immersive. It is important to provide ways for the user to feel as if they have been transported to another world, similar to being caught up in a great book or movie.
  • Believable. To help ground the user in the virtual environment created for them, try to use lighting, sound, touch to make the experience more believable.

Get the right tools for VR design

Creating amazing VR experiences gives designers a new way to bring a story to life. Having the right design software, like Adobe Aero, gives designers an intuitive way to create amazing immersive experiences that are exciting and innovative for users.