Over the past several years, augmented reality (AR) technology has established a home in entertainment, marketing, education, and many other industries. The use of AR apps in the enterprise will grow to $2.4 billion in 2019.

On the flip side, augmented reality also brings a lot of challenges for designers. Nowadays, the most experienced designers have solid skills in designing web and mobile apps, but these skills aren’t always applicable to immersive AR experiences. We want to fill this gap by providing this guide for augmented reality design.

What is AR?

Augmented reality (or AR) is a technology that layers computer-generated images on top of the real world. AR adds a programmed layer over actual reality to create a third, dynamic level of augmented experience. With AR apps, instead of just seeing information, users interact with it and receive live feedback on the action they have performed.

Why AR is in the spotlight

Unlike virtual reality, which requires users to purchase pricey headsets in order to be immersed in an altered experience, it’s possible to experience AR on mobile. Both Android and iOS devices can drop virtual objects alongside real ones through the phone’s camera. This makes augmented reality a more feasible option for developers and marketers. Currently, we have more than 3.2 billion smartphone users worldwide, and this number continues to increase.

A quick guide to Augmented reality UI design

Understand the problem and ensure that AR is the right medium for solving this problem

When it comes to building AR apps, the concept of “measure twice, cut once” becomes especially important. Before diving into AR design and development, it’s important to have a clear answer to the question, “What do I want to achieve with this AR app?” Your ultimate goal is to ensure that the AR experience is right for the project. That’s why the first step is finding out if AR is the right medium for solving the user problem. Product designers should start with identifying the users and their needs. After that, ask the fundamental question, “Do these problems involve immersing the user in real-time?”

Augmented reality design should be tied to clear business and user objectives

You shouldn’t create an AR app just because it’s trendy—that’s almost a sure way to create a poor UX. Rather, the desired functionality needs to be evaluated to fit with the experience that the AR display medium can offer.

AR in an app should be a layer of added value that reduces the time required to complete tasks. AR should empower the users and make them more productive. Consider the Ikea’s Place app. This app allows you to see whether a product will fit your existing environment. Ordering and placing an actual couch or lamp within your physical space would be much more time-consuming.

Gif showcasing the ability to use the Ikea app to plan a room
Ikea Place allows you to see how the furniture will look in your interior

Consider hardware capabilities

Offer AR features only on capable devices. If your app’s primary purpose is AR, make your app available only to devices that are capable of that. If your app includes features that require specific AR capabilities, don’t show users an error if they try to use these features on a device that doesn’t support them. Instead, avoid offering the feature on an unsupported device in the first place.

Don’t limit yourself with the rectangular frames

It’s natural for UI and UX designers to start ideas in a box. When we design a new digital experience for mobile devices, we usually draw within the iPhone screen frame. While this approach is okay for the regular app, it won’t work for AR. Why? Because by doing that, you create boundaries, and those boundaries will subconsciously limit your creativity.

The great thing about AR is that it’s not limited to the device screen. The device screen becomes more like a window that we use to see the world. That’s why we should break down the boxes and instead think about an interface as being flexible.

Design comfortable interactions

User comfort is a top priority for product designers, and AR design isn’t an exception. Anticipate that people will use your app in a wide variety of real-world environments.

Set initial expectations about the space required for interactions

Give users a clear understanding of the amount of space they will need to experience your AR. Is it possible to use an app in the living room, or will they need an open space for that?  Communicate your app’s requirements and expectations to people upfront to help them understand how their physical environment can affect their AR experience. Include a preview with AR interactions in the AppStore/Play Store, and add instructions in the app itself.

visual diagram of the space used with augmented reality
Various spaces for the interactions. Image by Wikipedia.

Public or private environment

Since you will integrate an AR design solution into the users’ environment, you want it to feel as natural as possible. The type of environment significantly affects AR design:

  • In a private environment (e.g., home or work), product designers can count on long user sessions and complex interactions. The whole user body can be involved in the interaction.
  • In public environments (e.g., outdoors), it’s essential to focus on short user sessions. Because regardless of how much people might enjoy the AR experience, they won’t want to walk around with their hands up, holding a device for an extended period of time.

Collect all the details of the physical environment to be augmented. The more environmental conditions you identify before building a product, the better.

Design for safety

Sometimes users can get too immersed in an AR experience, so they ignore physical objects around them. As a result, they can bump into objects or people. To prevent such behavior, you need to build in reminders for users to check their surroundings.

Don’t make users walk backward

The chances of bumping into furniture and other objects are much greater when a user is moving backward. That’s why it’s recommended to design experience that guides users to move forward, not backward.

Gif depicting why a user should not have to back up when using augmented reality
Don’t make users walk backward while they interact with AR. Image by Google.

Consider physical constraints

Users will hold mobile devices while interacting with your product. Thus, make comfortable designs to prevent physical strains. For example, holding a device at a certain distance or angle for longer periods can be fatiguing. To prevent causing fatigue, consider keeping sessions short, and add periods of downtime to help users get relaxed.

Allow users to take a break

People tend to spend more time in experience if they are afraid to lose their progress. For example, when people playing an AR game are unable to save their progress on an individual level, they often finish the level otherwise, they will lose their progress. Let users pause or save their current progress in the AR app. Make it easy to continue an experience where they left off, even if they switch their physical location.

Usability testing is must

Usability testing should be a critical step in the product design process. When the first working prototype of your augmented reality design is ready, you should run comprehensive usability tests on the product in real conditions. Your ultimate goal here is to make interactions with the product comfortable for users.

Minimize the input

AR experiences should be designed to require as little physical input from users as possible. When users are looking through the device screen at an augmented picture, it’s going to be hard for them to input data at the same time. Use alternative ways of collecting information.  For example, utilize a device camera or sensors for this step.

Immerse users in experience

Don’t clutter UI

A good AR experience immerses users into interactions. It only happens when people believe that what they see on the screen is real. It’s vital to devote as much of the screen as possible to display the physical world and your app’s virtual objects. Avoid cluttering the screen with visible UI controls and information because they diminish the immersive experience.

Strive for convincing illusions when placing realistic objects

To help users believe that the AR world is real, make sure your app updates the scene 60 times per second, so objects don’t appear to flicker. You can measure Frame rate (expressed in frames per second or FPS) in Xcode for iOS and Android Studio for Android devices.

Use audio

Audio is a multipurpose tool. Sound effects can improve the usability of a product. For example, it’s possible to add a sound effect to confirm that a user picked up a virtual object. Background music can also help envelop people in the virtual world by creating the right mood.

Offer easy onboarding

Many users have never experienced an AR environment before. When users encounter their first AR experiences, they will need guidance on how to interact with it. Onboarding plays a key role in creating a great UX. Let users start in AR quickly by making a tutorial a part of the main experience flow.

Avoid teaching users all the key tasks or mechanics at once

Show instructions or tips on how to perform specific things in the context of actual interactions. By doing that, you won’t overload users with information, and they’ll be able to get all the important information at hand.

visual example of a swipe through interaction process
PLNAR, the digital desk platform, uses a swipe-through onboarding. This type of onboarding won’t work well for AR experience because the interactions are described out of the actual context. Image by vovakurbatov.

For example: when a user is interacting with an AR game, provide the user with steps and tips that they can use as they progress through various levels in order to break apart the information.

augmented reality app using instructions for how a person will use the app
Squishy Hoops, a free AR arcade game, reveals the instructions gradually to the user.  Image by vovakurbatov.

Guide the user visually

Use a combination of visual cues, motion, and animation to teach users. Illustrate and use in-app experiences as much as possible.

Gif of an app guiding the user through the various steps of their journey.
Google Map uses animated fox to guide users visually.

Use familiar UI patterns

When it comes to augmented reality design, many designers try to invent and use new and unexpected interaction patterns. They believe that by doing that, they will make an app more desirable for potential users. In reality, they increase the learning curve and make the first time users invest more time in learning how to use the app.

That’s why when it comes to augmented reality interface design, it’s always better not to reinvent the wheel. Instead, take advantage of your users’ existing knowledge. A majority of mobile users know how to tap, drag and swipe objects. And you can use those interaction patterns in your UI. By doing that you won’t have to teach the user a whole new way to perform simple tasks.


AR is one of the emerging technologies that have an opportunity to change the way we interact with digital products.

The most important thing that any product designer should remember about AR is that it’s just a technology. With each product, people are seeking out experiences, not technologies, and they won’t like a technology that isn’t friendly to use.