Making VR predictable

Much of my work in the last twelve months or so has been focused on a broad definition of user experience. By this I mean the more useful and perhaps difficult definition offered by the Nieslen Norman group. It runs thus:

User experience ” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

I am not an interface designer (as any of you with even a passing acquaintance with me will testify). My efforts have been applied to more strategic questions around user experience: what is this thing for? Does anyone need it or feel motivated to use it? If so, can they find it? And so on…These are the broader themes of a genuinely useful experience.

In amongst this work has been the attempt to encourage folks to make their products and content predictable. In a digital context, predictable is good. It equates to ‘easy to use’ (and therefore, not annoying). It means that a system or a service is easy to understand and easy to learn. We can get used to it quickly.

In web and mobile terms, predictability requires using interface and design conventions. (Like predictable, conventional is a compliment as well). These conventions in include:

  • The back button
  • Uniform presentation of links
  • The hamburger menu device
  • Search
  • Consistent navigation and menu options
  • Clicking, swiping and pressing behaviours
  • Opening and closing windows
  • And many more….

Essentially, the advice tends to state that you can earn the right to delight your users if you treat them predictably first. Or, surprise them with care, perhaps. (Learning folks can often fall into the trap of trying to delight and engage users before the predictable foundations are in place. eLearning often falls into this trap).

Over the summer I ran a workshop on UX for a group of developers and designers who are making VR applications. This was a fascinating journey. Those conventions and the solid ground of predictability are not yet present. The conventions have yet to emerge. Tricky times for designers trying translate creative ideas into a usable VR package.

Marco Faccini and I discussed this problem at some length at Learning Live (do ask him, he knows more about it than I do). How best to guide a user through a VR experience? There is the equipment to consider, the selection of the application on the platform, opening, starting, orientation, interface isntructions…All this before the user gets into your carefully designed experience. The user can be tired out by this complexity, expending thinking energy on how to do stuff as well as what to do and what happened as a result.

Much VR needs to be explained before it is used. This can lapse back into the territory of needing to teach a user how to use a learning experience. “Tap the button on the side of the headset”, “focus the cross on the start logo” etc… (learning folks may well like this trip back to the future, I fear). Unpredictability carries a price for developers and an overhead of effort for users.

There are gaming conventions out there which many developers rely on to establish familiarity in VR applications. How many regular PC/console games are there in a corporate context though? Enough to be confident that those techniques will stick?  prehaps there is data available to support these decisions.

There is a further commercial implication of VR in a workplace setting. Many customers will need educating about the technology and how it can best be used. In this territory, familiarity for a customer may be the dreaded “course” which is a very weak metaphor for good VR (IMHO). A game is a good metaphor, of course, but good gaming experiences are costly and not easy to achieve. I would be even less confident that a customer will be able to accurately represent the response and needs of their colleagues in a VR environment. Stakeholders find it hard enough to reflect real user needs for a web page.

There is no substitute for trying things out and learning about VR from, erm, real experience. This can make for a complicated sales process though, on the agency side.

I am confident about the utility of VR as an option in the digital learning mix. It’s time is coming I am sure. One herald of the time arriving will be that it feels predictable as well as exciting.

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