Five things I learned while designing VR experiences

Tom Anderson shares his experience of working with immersive technology, and how design roles are merging with other disciplines.


Photo of Thomas Anderson
A small figure of a man looking at two giant letters which spell out VR.

It’s early doors for Virtual Reality (VR). It's still emerging as a technology, and the design processes for creating VR content are still forming up. So when I found out I would be joining the VR Hub for 3 months as part of the BBC UX Design Trainee Scheme, I was apprehensive. I didn’t know anything about VR, or how to design for it. Here’s what I learnt...

1. Design craft is in demand

I was able to use familiar design tools and techniques to help shape the user experience (UX) of VR experiences. This included sketching ideas for VR environments and scenes (pen and paper), making basic objects and image assets (photoshop and basic HTML), and the on-boarding experience of loading a VR app (UX processes).

Even if you come from a very traditional design background, your skills are relevant to VR. You simply apply them to a new medium. But to be a successful VR Designer, you will need to develop design dexterity with new tools.

2. Learning to code isn’t essential

Designers don’t need to code in order to prototype VR experiences. There are many tools aimed at people from a non-technical background, who want to mock-up immersive scenes without building them from the ground up.

Ottifox is a powerful tool for quickly testing VR ideas, without writing code. It’s great for understanding how a scene or object will feel in VR, and to rapidly prototype basic interactions. It’s also fast for designers to pick up due to the User Interface (UI)’s similarity to Sketch and other two-dimensional (2D) design tools.

Patches goes one step further than Ottifox. There aren't many limits to the sorts of experiences you can create, and there’s great control over creating shapes, interactions and animations. Using tools such as Patches and Ottifox is a great way to get started building VR scenes, but I also found it useful to experiment with the underlying frameworks as well.

3. Learning to code using A-Frame will help

Some VR prototyping tools such as Ottifox are built on top of A-Frame, the open source library for WebVR. Experimenting with A-Frame helped my overall understanding of the space.

Even though I had no prior HTML knowledge to begin with, it was easy enough to grasp due to HTML’s inherent cut-and-paste simplicity. By the end of my placement I could effectively create an interactive three-dimensional (3D) scene.

By experimenting with both easy-to-learn prototyping software, and more advanced tools, designers can add a new dimension to their existing design capabilities. And apply both their 2D, and new-found 3D skills to making VR experiences.

However, there is a drastically different design paradigm to consider.

A simple scene using A-Frame’s visual editor

4. VR design is narrative design

In addition to working on the user interface, I got the chance to shape the content of VR experiences. By content I mean the story or narrative. Let me explain this a bit more…

UX designers help users to achieve a goal when interacting with a product. For the BBC’s audience this user goal often involves accessing content (such as a TV show, a live sport score or a news article).

For example, a UX designer working on the BBC Sounds app is dedicated to creating an effective user experience from opening the app to listening to a live show, podcast or mix. However this UX designer rarely works with the content creators (e.g. DJ’s and producers) to shape the content itself. This designer is more likely to be found crafting a beautiful and seamless onboarding experience than recording a 'Fire in the booth' with Charlie Sloth.

This is because with traditional mediums the content, and the UI, are clearly separate. Like a see-through sherbet wrapper, the interface encases the content and invites the user to consume what’s inside (the radio show or mix), and once the experience begins (listening), the UI is instantly forgotten. How digital products are made reflects this separation - content creators make the content, and design teams help users to easily access and use this content.

In VR I found this is different: users are immersed in the content itself from the onset of an experience. As game writer Rob Morgan explains"users are more radically present in a VR scene than with any other type of media". The user interface lies within this immersive world, as opposed to being abstracted on top of the content, as with the UI controls of traditional mediums. The content and UI are interwoven, and I found that this affects how VR is designed. As Bobby Gill, founder of VR/AR design agency Blue Label Labs, describes "The environment should complement the story, and the story, in turn, should complement the environment".

This offers interesting opportunities to designers. As product designer Gabriel Valdivia notes , working in VR invites designers to "question the line between content and UI". As interfaces bleed further into the virtual worlds they control, designers in VR are entering murky territory. They are working in what is traditionally the domain of content creators such as writers and directors, in order to create the ‘ mise-en-scène ’ and shape the narratives of experiences.

5. Designing in VR is fun!

Designing narratives is fun, and this manifested itself in interesting ways during my time on the team.

One example of this was when we tried controlling a character’s life decisions by selecting various tape cassettes of pre-determined situations, all within the character’s own head! The design team was involved with brainstorming the character and their personality traits, working with the writers to shape the outcome of the story, and creating the game environment itself.

Even the controls to begin the experience were cross-pollinated with the story - the lead designer created an interaction whereby the user loaded a tape labelled ‘start’ into a cassette player to begin.


Onboarding in ‘Tapehead’

Integrating the interface with the narrative, as we did with ‘Tapehead’, is one of the challenges of designing for an immersive world. But from my experience of working in the VR team for 3 months, I learnt that along with the challenge comes the opportunity. To bring much-needed design skills into VR teams, to combine old methods and tools with new ones, and to have fun working in different mediums. But also to go beyond the boundaries of traditional UX, beyond helping the user to access a story.

Working as a VR designer you get the chance to tell the story.

Where next?