An Introduction to Designing for Virtual Reality: 5 Lessons to Help You Get Started

An introduction to designing for virtual reality: 5 lessons to get you started

Test driving a luxury car from the comfort of your couch. Getting on a rollercoaster that careens you through a world seething with fire-breathing dragons. Experiencing a spacewalk just as an astronaut would, floating 250 feet above the Earth. Today, these otherwise unimaginable experiences are all possible in virtual reality.

As users, we’re wowed by all the virtual reality experiences being created in the name of fun and commerce. As a designer, I bring a dual lens to my experience. It’s not only “how cool is this” but also “how cool is it that someone actually DESIGNED this.”

The concept of virtual reality, or VR, isn’t new, but it has gained traction in the past few years due to the development of immersive technology and the interest from businesses in bringing it to the general public. As a user interface designer who primarily works on products viewed on a flat screen, I find the idea of designing for a three-dimensional space both challenging and exciting.  I’ve begun exploring virtual reality so that I can better understand its potential.

Are you a designer getting started in the world of immersive media? Below you’ll find a few suggestions and principles to take into consideration as you begin your own immersion.

1. Get Started: Experience Virtual Reality

One of the most effective ways to learn about virtual reality is simply by trying it out.

My first virtual reality experience was using Google Cardboard. Cardboard is a budget-friendly option if you’re not ready to spend a lot of money on a more expensive system. It’s intended to be used with applications that can be downloaded in the Google Play store. There are a ton of free experiences to choose from.

Other available virtual reality systems include the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream, HTC Vive, and Playstation VR. While these are more costly, they do provide users with a more immersive and memorable virtual experience.

2. Think Comfort: Remember Your User’s Field of Vision

As you explore virtual reality, you should pay close attention to your field of vision and how elements are displayed in front of you.

When you design for a flat screen, you have a great deal of control over what your user is looking at. In virtual reality, you can still apply certain design principles to bring your user’s attention to specific elements, but your canvas is now 360º wide and has actual depth. This means your user can not only look anywhere they please, but also reach for interactive elements. Those elements should be placed within a comfortable range from your user.

In this sense, a designer needs to think about ergonomics, and about how humans actually occupy physical space. You don’t want users to have to look around too much, or to strain their necks by tilting their heads at uncomfortable angles while looking for something. Users should always feel comfortable and have easy access to what they need. That’s why it’s important to consider information hierarchy. Make sure to organize elements in a way that makes sense, and that they don’t overwhelm whomever is using your application.  

3. Find Inspiration: The Real World Is Your Friend

Don’t be afraid of using the real world as reference when you’re designing for virtual reality.

If you’re creating a virtual environment, take human psychology into consideration. Make sure you don’t make users uncomfortable by placing them on the edge of a cliff, in the way of a fast-moving object, or among other things that may make them feel endangered. (Well, unless there’s a reason for it, of course.)

When it comes to interactions, think skeuomorphism. For websites and mobile applications, designers have moved away from skeuomorphic interfaces, heavily adopting a flat design style. Virtual reality, however, genuinely benefits from elements that mimic their real-world counterparts. This is because users are only just now learning how to behave in these three-dimensional digital environments.

When designing for virtual reality, you must take into consideration texture, matter, light, depth, and even sound. This approach helps designers create experiences that are believable and intuitive. It’s important that visual elements are recognizable and that they operate in the way users expect. Otherwise, users will get frustrated.

4. Stay Focused: Keep Your Eye on the Prize

You should always design with a clear purpose in mind. This remains true independently of the platform that you are designing for.

Good planning is essential. As you embark on your first virtual reality projects, you should establish from the very beginning what you are trying to achieve. You should also think about context, and understand why you’re designing for virtual reality.

If you’re working in virtual reality merely because it looks cool, your final product may turn out to be short-lived, as it may have worked just as well (or perhaps better) as a two-dimensional experience. If you understand your project well, however, and have a solid foundation for it, your chances of achieving success will be much higher. In addition, you’ll more easily recover from mistakes made along the way.

Consider the example below from multinational fashion retailer Topshop. The company sought an innovative way to introduce their new fashion collection. They wanted to create an experience that would be genuinely engaging for their fans. They also wanted to sell clothes, creating buzz around and buyers for their new line. The experience they designed — letting viewers immerse themselves in the experience of being in the front row at the runway show where the collection was unveiled — is successful only because it effectively achieves BOTH of Topshop’s objectives.

5. Work Smart: Use the Resources Available to You

As of yet, there aren’t many established standards or guidelines for virtual reality. The industry is still under development, and the technology has a long way to go. It’s only natural that best practices are still being defined.

That said, there are plenty of resources and case studies out there that can serve as a shortcut so you don’t have to figure everything out yourself. Just like you shouldn’t neglect experiencing things for yourself, you shouldn’t be afraid of diving deep into other people’s research. As you dive in, however, regard the information you’re receiving with a critical mind. Question it, contemplating whether it makes sense and how you can take things to the next level.

In addition, don’t underestimate the value of user testing. Just as you need to establish a clear purpose, it’s important to adopt an iterative process independent of the kind of design you do. Don’t be afraid of testing your designs and making changes. It’s easier to fix something small than to correct a large miscalculation.

VR Design Within Reach

It’s easy for designers to feel intimidated by the prospect of designing for virtual reality. But the truth is that you’ll never know what you might be capable of if you don’t start exploring what’s possible. Hopefully, these five lessons give you a foundation you can build on. After all, with virtual reality, not even the sky is our limit.

Want to hear more about how Distillery’s superstar design team is exploring new frontiers like virtual reality? Let us know!

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