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Virtual reality is changing the way we define user experience, but if one principal remains it’s that experiences must be centered around people

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to travel into space? Or watch The Beatles perform in concert? With the latest developments in VR your dreams can become a simulated reality and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your sofa.

But what do these new technologies mean for user experience? With emerging platforms and rapid developments in technology, user experience is central for these technologies to succeed. Because if people are to adopt these new technologies in their daily lives, they need to be believable.

As Daniel Terdiman points out “[VR companies] are keenly aware that bad VR experiences on any platform or any device can turn people off to the entire technology forever.”

Getting VR right is vital and that’s where UX comes in.

What is VR?

Before understanding how VR is changing UX, let’s look at which technologies have emerged in recent years and define them. There is some confusion among the different terms so here is some clarity.

To start, the three main technologies that alter reality are:

  • Virtual reality (VR)

Virtual reality creates a new world. A simulated reality, if you will. What VR does is transport the user to a different place, a place that is generated entirely by technology. If you need a mental image, think of VR headsets like Oculus Rift which create your own world for you.

  • Augmented reality (AR)

Then there’s AR. AR overlays a generated images or video on top of the reality. Think Pokémon Go or the Ikea catalog app, which lets you see how their furniture would look in your home before you buy it.

  • Mixed reality (MR)

Mixed reality is just that. It combines both generated imagery and real-world objects. According to Keith Curtin, it’s the most important tech of 2017. What mixed reality does is give real-world presence to intelligent virtual objects.

Does prototyping play a role in VR?

Since the user experience is integral to virtual reality, prototyping is essential in creating a believable VR experience. Getting a VR experience right is paramount and an interactive wireframe can get you closer to success with quick iterations.

It’s necessary to define interactions and create a logical workflow, even when designing a VR experience. Even though it’s a virtual reality, UI design still takes center stage.

While most of the design in VR is 3D, it’s still useful to prototype interfaces in 2D before you begin in 3D to save time and make incremental tweaks during user testing – you’d be surprised at where prototyping can fit into a design process.

Good UX for VR

Bad experiences can hurt VR, so which principles are necessary to avoid any hiccups in a VR user experience?

  • Believable: An experience within VR must be believable. That means feeling as though you’re actually there
  • Interactive: VR must be interactive to work well so when you extend your arm, the VR world must replicate those movements.
  • Explorable: You must be able to walk (or fly…) around an environment.
  • Immersive: Mix together exploration and believability and you get immersive – enjoying the experience from any angle.

VR UX success stories

VR has myriad uses. One such use is helping senior citizens in assisted living. Rendever is a virtual reality company based in Massachusetts that uses VR to help older people enjoy life again.

According to Rendever, 50% of residents in assisted living experience depression and isolation. The company sought to reduce this figure by using VR technology in an innovative way.

VR for senior citizens


Imagine it: you’re a senior citizen who is incapacitated and unable to travel. But your granddaughter’s wedding is happening on the other side of the country. Normally this would result in a disappointed and upset grandparent who’s missing out on the big day. But with VR, sitting in the front row of the wedding is now possible thanks to VR.

 “[Senior citizens] can experience powerful moments that a 2D picture won’t provide”

Travel during surgery with VR

VR has uses in medicine, too. Surgeons have taken to VR to help their patients remain calm as they undergo important and life changing surgeries.

Anesthetic is used to sedate patients but there are instances where this isn’t possible. To help reduce anxiety and stress during an operation, a private medical clinic in Mexico City uses VR headsets to transport patients to destinations like Machu Picchu in Peru to keep them distracted as they undergo treatment. And it worked.

VR helps reduce pain among patients

In California, psychologist Hunter Hoffman developed a VR game to aid pain reduction. SnowWorld attempts to direct a patient’s attention away from the pain and transports them into a snow filled world where they throw snowballs at penguins. Yep, really.

What is notable about SnowWorld’s users was that they reported up to 50% less pain than those who attempt other means to distract them from their pain – how’s that for a great user experience?

UX challenges when building VR experiences

Users may fear trying VR if they’ve previously had a bad experience with it. So UX design, or better yet good UX design, must be central to any VR experience. That means every little detail must be considered, from proper lighting and fluid movements to realistic design.

Enhance the user experience in and out of virtual reality

But UX goes beyond virtual reality. The device’s design plays a big role too. Nobody wants to wear a clunky headset that’s heavy and weighs them down. To enhance the VR experience, creating a lightweight and versatile headset is paramount otherwise users won’t be able to immerse themselves fully into virtual reality if all they have on their mind is a headset that’s causing them neck pain.

Make your VR experience believable

One of the overriding challenges that VR presents is that an experience may not look or feel real. Can you imagine diving into the cool waters of the Caribbean only to find poorly designed fish and badly designed terrain?

The UX design of a VR experience ought to be as convincing as possible. That means giving users full control of the experience so they’re in the driving seat. Interactions are a must in order that users can forget they’re in a simulated reality. To address this UX problem, many VR experiences are in 360° for a fully immersive experience.

Virtual reality has real life consequences

While VR simulates a reality, don’t forget that there are real life consequences when using VR. That means vomit-proofing your VR experiences. No, really. Motion sickness is a thing.

One sure fire way to turn people off VR is to give them headaches and nausea. With the UI design, simply avoid any rapid movements or velocity changes to stop users from wanting to run to the nearest bucket.

But what can UXers do to VR proof their practice?

First and foremost, for any UXer approaching VR, is to understand how the technology works. The nitty gritty of AR. That means brushing up on some new vocabulary. Such as differentiating head tracking from motion tracking and learning what HMD means.

Getting up to date with 3D-related tools

As UX practitioners, we need to stay on top of the latest developments in technology and this includes user testing methodologies. We’re used to user testing our mobile app prototypes.

When we create a new design, continuous and rigorous user testing helps us to gauge if something has worked.

User testing in VR has its obvious drawbacks: it’s expensive, hard to supply multiple headsets to a large audience and testing something that’s attached to someone’s face is complicated.

Understanding the methodologies behind user testing with VR is essential but conquering them isn’t impossible. Gone are the days of peeping over a user’s shoulder.

Ultimately, VR opens up many doors for UX. But it’s UX with a twist. Pointing and clicking a mouse will seem kitsch when designing experiences that involve face and voice recognition, movement tracking and, potentially, brain waves. These are just a few of the new input methods that UXers will have to acquaint themselves with.

Article originally published at JustInMind blog.

Oleksiy Kuryliak

Founder of Rioks. Marketing Strategist & Auditor. Advising startups and enterprises on digital transformation, marketing operations and go-to-market strategies.