The technology industry is constantly trying to simplify the process of interaction with digital products. In a not so distant future, we will have natural user interfaces – interfaces where the interaction will be direct and consistent with our ‘natural’ behavior. And virtual reality (VR) contributes a lot to this movement. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, & Apple invest billions in the development of VR technologies. VR & AR are two technologies that many designers consider to be the future of interactions, but VR has a lot more potential. Industry experts believe that VR will introduce even more significant changes in our society than the advent of the mobile phone.

Designers need to be ready for that moment. This article is a quick guide to virtual reality UX design.

Understand people and the platform you design for

No matter what product you design, you should always start with understanding people who will use it. Who are your target users? What goals do they want to achieve using your VR app? Research your target audience, understand what problems they may encounter while they experience VR, and then create user personas and interaction flows based on that information.

When it comes to VR platforms, a range of devices are available on the market today. From a very affordable Google Cardboard (you can purchase it for $15) that has only one button on the side of the device for clicking on targets to sophisticated HTC Vive Pro that has natural hand controllers. Every platform has unique capabilities, and it’s essential to consider the platform capabilities before starting VR design.

Visualize the process of interaction

Designing VR experience isn’t too different than the process for designing a web or mobile product. We still need to understand who our users are and how they will interact with our product. But in comparison to traditional mobile apps/websites, VR experience requires a more active user involvement in the process of interaction. The user is less of an observer and more like an active participant.

It’s possible to make a parallel between virtual reality UX design and the experience of being in a car. In a VR environment, users are not “passengers,” they are “drivers.” They should have full control of their movement inside the VR environment and be able to anticipate what they are about to see.

If you’re only at the beginning of the design process, it’s not recommended to start visualizing the process of interaction using digital prototyping tools. When it comes to VR design, creating high-fidelity prototypes can be time-consuming (generally, creating hi-fidelity prototypes can cost much more in 3D than in 2D). Thus, try to get your ideas out on paper first. It’s much better to use a technique of storyboarding just to get a sense of how users will interact with your VR product.

An example of a VR storyboard template shows an oval view and panoramic view.
VR Storyboard template. Image by cinematicvr .

Make VR space comfortable for users

When working on virtual reality UX design, you need to consider the capabilities of people who will use the VR product.

First, you need to consider the duration of the user session. It’s a well-researched fact that VR sessions shouldn’t be longer than 20-30 minutes because people start to lose concentration after that time period. If your experience requires longer sessions, allow users to save their current progress and re-engage with the experience right at the point where they stopped.

Second, it’s essential to understand the scale when designing in VR. In the real world, people can easily get uncomfortable in small, large, or high spaces. If you design a VR space that’s too big, users may get lost. But if you design a space that is too small, users may feel claustrophobic.

Always maintain head tracking

Head tracking enables objects in virtual space to maintain fixed positions regardless of how the user moves their head. Head tracking is an essential ingredient of creating the perception of a virtual world surrounding you.

Diagram of a woman wearing a VR headset that shows the roll, yaw and pitch.
Head tracking in VR. Image by dsky.

Never stop tracking the user’s head position when they are inside of the VR space. Even a short pause in head tracking can break a sense of immersion.

Eliminate hardware or software conditions that make head tracking freeze unintentionally. These moments commonly occur when loading a new scene or rendering a large number of 3D objects. Google VR design guidelines recommend fading the screen to black before losing tracking and maintaining audio feedback to give the user a signal that the app is still running.

Prevent motion sickness

Motion sickness is a disturbance created as a result of a disagreement between the visually perceived movement and the vestibular system’s sense of movement. Many automobile passengers feel motion sickness if they are not looking out of the windows of the vehicle while it’s moving.

Motion sickness is a severe problem in VR design. VR can easily confuse your brain because your body is stationary, but you’re viewing an environment that is moving. As a result, there’s a potential to present mismatches between physical and visual motion cues. Motion sickness in VR can lead to fatigue, headaches, and general discomfort.

Here are a few things you can do to prevent motion sickness:

  • Include fixed points of reference in the user’s environment. Fixed points of reference (also known as rest frames) keep eye stability by allowing users to focus on them. In many cases, you can design a horizon line that stays with users as they move.
  • Use constant velocity. Create a more comfortable experience by keeping the user at a constant velocity when they are moving inside of your app.
  • Reduce virtual rotations. Virtual rotations happen when users jump or zoom in the VR space. It’s especially important to reduce virtual rotation for VR flight simulations, rollercoaster games, and similar VR experiences.
  • Add ambisonic sound to match the sense of movement.
  • Create an experience (scenes) that lets users rest.

Avoid sudden changes

Sudden changes in your VR app, such as changing the brightness, can confuse users. The abrupt transition of the user from a dark scene to a bright scene may cause eye strain. It is similar to stepping out of a dark room into the sun. Thus, try to introduce changes in VR space gradually.

Design comfortable interactions

How do users interact with objects in VR space? As a new medium, users may not be familiar with virtual reality interactions yet. It might be tempting to introduce new interaction patterns – something that nobody did before. But it’s better to resist this temptation because novel interactions increase the user’s learning curve. It’s better to introduce familiar interaction patterns.

There are two ways you can solve this design challenge in virtual reality design:

  • Place visible controls in the VR view. Visible controls are something we have in desktop and mobile apps. This pattern can also be used in VR space. When users launch your app, they will see visible UI controls in their current field of view. If your application allows movement, you need to update the location of the UI controls based on the user’s changing position and field of view.
Two hands rotating against one another in a VR space.
Hovercast VR Menu. Image by LeapMotion.
  • VR environments allow users to interact with the digital world in the same way we interact with the physical world. The user can interact with 3D objects in VR space by holding and moving them. If you want to utilize this interaction pattern, you need to give users a visual reticle (visual aid to track targets). Display a reticle when the user is doing fine targeting.
Graphic design of Google's cardboard headset viewing one of three blue bottles.
Visual reticle in VR design. Image by Google VR Guidelines.

Since tactile feedback is still lacking in VR, it’s recommended to use sound to provide feedback when users touch objects.

Design onboarding scenarios

The first-time VR experience can be dramatically different from the well-known web and mobile experience. Don’t expect people to know what to do and where to go right away. It’s critical to onboard first-time users. Design special scenarios that help them get started and provide clear affordances that users can rely on when navigating and interacting within the space.

Guide users along the way

Because the virtual reality can be extremely complex, guiding user focus and attention presents unique challenges. In a VR environment, you can guide users not only using visuals but also using audio. Audio can be used for spatial positioning – holophonic sound allows users to understand where the sound is coming from – above, below, or behind them.

Don’t expect users to read text instructions

Textual instructions don’t perform well in VR spaces for several reasons – a lot of text can cause eye strain, and it also breaks a sense of immersion. When it comes to VR design, it’s always better to use short text sentences or audio instructions instead of long blocks of text.

Gif of a VR environment that shows a person steering a space fighter jet.
Avoid long blocks of text in VR space. When it comes to VR design, it’s always better to rely on sound or visuals to deliver the information. Image by leapmotion.

Virtual Reality UX design guidelines

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, large corporations work to make VR experiences accessible for a large number of people, and they release guidelines that help design VR experiences. Here are a few guidelines to follow:

I also recommend checking The UX of VR – a curated list of resources to help you on your journey into the UX of virtual reality

Conclusion

VR is an emerging tech that has tremendous potential to change our world. It will have a strong influence on almost all aspects of our lives. Yet, VR is a new field with very few established conventions. And it’s what makes it so exciting for designers. It’s a perfect moment to join this field because your ideas can form the foundation for future generations of users. If you shift from 2D to 3D today, maybe you will be the one who rethinks paradigms of human-computer interaction.