VR Won’t Work Without Great UX Designers

VR Won’t Work Without Great UX Designers
July 15, 2017

When done well, virtual reality (VR) experiences are mind-blowing. They’re disarming. They can transport a user from a living room to a haunted house or ocean vista. With a few consumer-ready headsets on the market already, we’re about to witness a major shift in the way people interact with or consume content. If we can get the UX right.


There’s a reason Facebook paid $2 billion for the purchase of Oculus Rift—paraphrasing Zuckerberg, they were looking to invest heavily and strategically in the next big platform after mobile. And it’s even making its way to content strategy conferences; this year at LavaCon Portland, there will be a Facebook VR strategist speaking about this future fast-approaching, and what that might mean for folks who work with content.


[Shameless side note – the folks at LavaCon are our friends, and have a discount to offer for UX Booth readers looking to attend their Portland event, happening November 5 – 8, 2017. Scroll to the end of this article if you’re interested!]


I’m not here to argue that VR is the future. I expect that it’s here to stay (though, it’s likely that it will look a lot different by the time it sees wide adoption). However, what I am here to argue is this: UX design in VR is still nascent and has a long ways to go.


So allow me to spout off a little about my experiences with VR, and please, do join in or challenge it.


VR UX gone wrong


I go to a bunch of VR Meetups here in Seattle. Given that we play home to Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Valve offices, there are lots to choose from. It’s a hot topic here. At these VR meetups, smaller, independent studios and developers come by to showcase their new games, seeking input and player feedback from eager participants.


One of the early experiences I participated in was a rhythm-based game where the player (me) was defending my position from a huge onslaught of incoming enemies, all using percussive war instruments. The concept sounded super fun, especially given my positive experiences with other rhythm-based VR games like Audioshield.


But, when I started playing, I couldn’t get anything to work. Even though I have decent rhythm and was doing everything I was told to do, nothing I did seemed to make the enemies stop coming. So not only did I feel inadequate, but also experienced a small amount of embarrassment—people were watching me suck, but couldn’t see my actual experience on the screen. It just looked like I was flailing around, sucking at life.


Then I watched the next few people play – everyone looked like they were sucking at life! The enemies kept on coming, and people kept on unsuccessfully flailing to fend them off. Users felt embarrassed and dumb.


And so I talked to developers standing in their booths. I talked to participants. I talked to everyone. And not a single studio or team had dedicated user experience designers. Many even seemed surprised to be asked. (Again, these were smaller studios. The big studios are absolutely involving UX designers.)


This is absolutely bonkers to me. UX is pretty important for web design right? We all know this. If your website isn’t usable, users will be frustrated, and depending on how motivated they are to use or interact with your site, their tasks will be harder to achieve.


That said, users can typically achieve their goals, despite bad UX. But when UX and general usability aren’t deeply considered and designed for in VR, it doesn’t work. Users feel embarrassed. The characteristic immersion of VR falls apart. It may sound obvious but bears emphasis: immersion is what makes VR so captivating. It aims to fully bathe users in a whole new world, and trick their brains into thinking it’s real. And when done well, it works.


When I take an action in a VR environment and expect a different result than what I achieve, I am immediately pulled from my environment and I am more than aware I’m in a virtual space (not to mention the physical world around me). This has functionally broken the entire experience.


Bad UX makes websites annoying; bad UX makes VR impossible.


So what?


I’d love to put out a call to action for any UX designers who are interested in VR to step out and stand up! Learn as much as you can about these emerging best practices. Become evangelists. Prototype your own experiences. Think about the opportunities and constraints of the technologies. Get yourselves a headset; if you can’t afford a Vive, Oculus Rift, or PSVR, then grab a Google Cardboard. Just immerse yourselves. The world needs more VR UX designers.


Normally I’d throw together some excellent resources for next steps and further reading, but Max Glenister has done a better job of that than I will. So, check out his fantastic curation “The UX of VR” and prepare yourself for a wild ride into the future!


And for those of you interested in checking out LavaCon Portland this year, our promo code is “UXBooth” — it’ll lower that price tag a bit during registration.

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