Virtual reality (VR) has been evolving by leaps and bounds over the past few years, with headsets such as Oculus Rift, GearVR, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR entering the consumer market. In 2016, estimates put the installed number of headsets at about seven million, with projected growth at 37 million by 2020. With more devices on the market, there are more opportunities for designers to work on VR experiences. We talked with three designers about what they’ve learned designing for VR, and how to set yourself up for success on your first VR project.

Meet the designers

Headshots of Andrea Zariwny, Rui Jie Wang, and David Parker
From left to right: Andrea Zariwny, Rui Jie Wang, and David Parker.

Andrea Zariwny works at digital healthcare agency INVIVO Communications. She got started with immersive technology during her biomedical communications master’s thesis project where she combined a 3D printed model with augmented reality (AR), layering over a medical illustration of the inner ear.

Rui Jie Wang is a UX designer at Patio Interactive, an agency specializing in AR and VR experiences for marketing and commercial applications. In college, Wang was interested in working with VR and was first introduced at a “hackathon” where she had to build a VR version of the game Space Invaders.

David Parker has a background in advanced technology as a consultant for large corporations. He began in VR by volunteering at a hospital and granting virtual last wishes to terminal patients. He recently launched a non-profit to bring VR to hospitals on a greater scale.

5 principles for UX designers starting out with VR

Designing for a new technology platform and a new type of experience can be daunting. Wang said, “At the beginning, I was kind of panicking, it’s very different to designing for a 2D screen, which has so many best practices.”

Wang, Parker, and Zariwny all work on VR experiences in very different contexts, and yet there was a lot of overlap in their advice and perspectives on UX for VR. Here are five principles for VR projects, based on their first-hand experiences designing for VR.

Experiment with VR for yourself

Everyone emphasized the importance of getting immersed in VR and trying the platforms for yourself when starting out. Parker said, “Experiment — try quite a lot of different scenarios and applications. Trying experiences in VR that you are actually passionate about really brings the power of the technology to life. For me that was a downhill skiing experience.”

 Playing Space Invader in VR on the Oculus Rift, image credited to Rui Jie Wang.
Playing Space Invader in VR on the Oculus Rift. Image by Rui Jie Wang.

Wang echoed this, “Definitely try it for yourself, whether that’s buying some time at a VR arcade, watching YouTube walkthroughs, or buying a Google Cardboard, this really helps to give you inspiration regarding the interactions.”

For Zariwny, trying out the technology is all about understanding constraints. “You really have to know the tech, and the corresponding limitations. Take time to understand the difference in experience between a tethered headset like Oculus Rift versus a portable, more basic technology like Google Cardboard.”

Expand your toolset

Designing for VR means moving beyond the UX tools and methods that might be familiar, such as wireframing. Parker said, “For designers who are new to VR, my advice is not to just assume you can apply what you have learned in the past with other forms of media. Adobe has done a really great job with Premiere, which has actually got specific VR tools, and that’s super helpful.”

 Examples of storyboarding for a VR game. Image by Andrea Zariwny.
Examples of storyboarding for a VR game. Image by Andrea Zariwny.

Wang and Zariwny both mentioned the power of storyboarding and other tools that draw on film and theater production. When blocking out a specific level or scene in a game, drawing from ideas in theater and stage management is really helpful, Wang said. “It’s also great to take cues from prop design, or, for example, using LEGO to really simply model out what the flow of an experience would be. This brainstorming and initial prototyping for VR before coding is basically a form of set design.”

Consider the context

Certain things that work well in UX for websites and apps are a no-go in VR. Zariwny explained, “You should stay away from text in VR, unless the graphics are extremely optimized. It’s not ideal to read a lengthy scrolling flat-text plane in a 3D graphic environment.”

Considering whether you are creating a passive or active experience will also hugely impact the UX design in a big way. “In a passive experience you put on a headset. You are most likely sitting stationary, and you can’t really do anything except watch. On the other hand, in an active experience, you have agency in what you are doing,” said Wang. “Distinguishing between those two types of experiences will help you think about how many touchpoints you need to build.”

Design the onboarding experience

As VR is still an emergent technology, the design of experiences has to consider how people will learn and get started. There are also risks associated with VR motion sickness, as a person’s  brain and body adapt to a virtual reality environment.

 Carefully considering the onboarding steps ensures the user has the best chance possible of a fully immersive experience.  Image credited to Rui Jie Wang and Patio Interactive.
Carefully considering the onboarding steps ensures the user has the best chance possible of a fully immersive experience. Image credited to Rui Jie Wang and Patio Interactive.

“People have different levels of experience and expectations with VR, so onboarding is a very interesting challenge,” said Wang. “VR can often be a very siloed, individual experience, so good onboarding is crucial in order to not have to break the immersion later on.”

Parker also shared some approaches for easing people into the experience. “I always start with something calm, with nature, and something stationary — something that’s not moving. That way, it’s not too jarring. It’s also really important to consider transitions — for example, from stationary to motion, or from light to darkness. Otherwise your brain thinks something’s wrong!”

Prepare for the unexpected

Working in such diverse contexts means there is a range of surprises for the designers, which comes with working with a newer technology. These surprises can come in the form of user behavior or reactions, or even in unexpected tech meltdowns.

Zariwny said, “It really surprised me in testing with users that novel users often don’t look behind themselves. It’s a very new environment and a new thing, so people are surprisingly wary of moving about.”

For Parker, one of the most surprising (and rewarding) aspects of creating VR experiences for patients was the effect it had on their pain levels. “Being able to watch patients who were in extreme amounts of pain be completely pain free, to the extent of their saying, ‘Oh my God, zero pain!’ was massive. It gives them five to ten minutes of freedom.”

While VR technology has advanced significantly, especially in the consumer space, there is still sometimes a need for unexpected hacks and workarounds. “Invest in an ice pack!” Wang suggested as there is a risk of your phone’s overheating when running VR experiences. “The low-tech hacks surprised me — alright, I’m just going to stick an ice pack on the back of my phone and keep going!”

A new frontier

Taking on a VR project for the first time may seem daunting, but the good news is that UX designers already have the right mindset for creating great experiences. Designing for VR requires experimentation —  a willingness to learn and adopt new tools. It also means — like all UX design — considering the context of an experience and ensuring your user has a smooth start.

These screenshots from Patio Interactive’s Augmented Reality Travel Portal give a sense of what is possible with technology. Images credited to Rui Jie Wang and Patio Interactive.

There is still much to discover and design in VR. Parker said, “There’s a ton of applications for VR with endless possibilities, but this stuff is not easy. We are not really there yet when it comes to creating easy, seamless experiences. There are more complications designing for VR than traditional mediums, and it takes time.”

Wang also emphasises that, “VR is just a tool, and you have to make sure it’s the right tool for the problem you are trying to solve or the experience you are trying to create.”

All of the designers mentioned the excitement of new possibilities, and the importance of keeping a pulse on VR research and what is happening, as Zariwny summed up,

“It’s been a lot of fun. No project has been the same, and you can really do anything!”