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VR, AR, and MR: Designing the new reality experience

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Change is the only thing that stays the same. In the world of user experience design, this is especially true. How can we, as practitioners, keep growing our perspectives as existing platforms continue to evolve and entirely new platforms arrive?

What follows is a meditation on this question, specifically around the new platforms of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR)—and some ideas on how to keep your eyes on the rapidly moving target of anticipating the needs of our audiences amidst massive shifts in human-computer interactions.

Related: 7 things to know about designing for virtual and augmented reality

Seven days after the release of Pokémon Go, more than 65 million people were playing it.

Sixty-five million people.

How many people live in your whole town? County? State? There are 8.4 million people in New York City, for some perspective.

Whether we care, the success of Pokémon Go is a statement about how humans are interacting with machines. Not in the future, but right now.

Many people still struggle with the distinction between the new platforms, so let’s define them:

  • VR transports audiences to another world. It immerses them in an artificial environment generated only by technology
  • AR overlays digital content on top of the real world
  • MR seamlessly combines virtual and real-world objects

Here’s a quick sample:

OculusRift? VR.

Have a display in your car that projects onto the windshield? AR.

HoloLens? MR.

What does this mean for UX design?

Usability led us to user experience, which now leads us onward to experience design.

Having paid attention over the past 20 years or so, here’s my take:

The first 10 years → 1997-2007 →  Usability design
In the beginning, usability design was all about reducing friction between the user and technology. Designing anything during this time meant the user was an afterthought.

Until the thing was in the wild, only then would someone (like me) say, “Oh, it’s not at all friendly to use. What can we do to improve that?” As long as the product met the basic business requirements, it was fine.

The past 10 years → 2007 – 2017 → UX design
On June 29, 2007, iPhones changed the rules. A single, agnostic piece of technology with more focus on the user than before. This has become the norm. Designing devices for users now comes first. Everything else comes second.

People ignore technology that isn’t friendly to use. And they should. Steve Jobs’ vision of the iPhone set a new precedent for today.

“Products have to inspire a sense of delight.”

The experience of using a product or a service has become the new normal. Products have to be usable and engaging—and they have to inspire a sense of delight.

They also need to align with a company’s brand and larger, long-term strategy. Users only come back when there’s a great experience.

The next 10 years → 2017 – 2027 → Experience design
The best is yet to come. While most companies are still working hard to get user experience right, it won’t be enough in the years to come.

Emerging platforms like VR, AR, and wearables aren’t used in the traditional sense anymore. For example:

  • Nest’s self-learning thermostat saves you energy without you having to do a thing
  • Siri can send that text for you while you’re driving
  • Fitbit’s SmartTrack recognizes and records your exercises for you. You can keep track of your workouts without ever pushing a button
  • Alexa notifies us that it’s time to hop in the car if we’re going to make it to that appointment on time

The balance is tipping over to the experience side of user experience. VR, AR, and MR are raising expectations to a whole new level. In a year, things will have changed even more.

The future of UX design

The trend is less user and more experience. Designers are already shifting focus in this way.

So as a UX designer, how do you prepare for what’s coming? How do you stay relevant?

How much psychological insight into people do you have? The increasing focus on experience requires a sixth sense into human sensibilities. Those gifted with deep empathy and social insight will succeed. Being able to expect the needs of our audiences will determine our level of success.

Are you a good communicator, or do you only think you are? Invest in talking to people, and actually listen to what they want, need, and fear.

Related: See the UX design trends for 2017

These are the anticipatory design methods that will deliver the most value. Technology should expect our audience’s actions and needs.

“Invest in talking to people—then actually listen to them.”

Get competent in the world of analytics. The tools are improving and they’re friendlier than ever to use.

Follow leaders like Magic Leap—they’re expected to reveal “Cinematic Reality” technology this year. Good things ahead. It makes for interesting reading, even if you’re not a science fiction fan. This science fiction is real.

Image by Maurizio Pesce. CC BY 2.0.

Human-computer interaction used to be of great interest to me.

I hardly care anymore.

This field is changing faster than it can be studied. Look around you. Watch how others use technology. Pay attention to how you use it. Observations and conversations are more valuable than academic study. Remember, studies that are 6 months old are already at their half-life.

“Change is the only thing that stays the same.”

Follow the work of people like Donald Norman, Susan Weinschenk, and Jakob Nielsen.

Follow Mike Enger at Google VR. Keep an eye on what Leap Motion does—they’re leaders in hand tracking (a key component to get to natural interactions).

Follow the titans of AR over at Metavision.com.

Last, but not least, visit The UX of VR for a fine-tuned list of other resources.

These people inspire me to do my best work. They’ll inspire you, too, into a future that’s exciting and very real, whether virtual, augmented, or mixed.

CTA for those not in hs to DO UI kit
Author

Chad Calease
Dad, ludic, tinkerer, maker and make-believer, grateful for many gifts. Mom said there's always one weirdo on the bus. But I can never find him.

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