Rethinking UX For Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is one of the most talked about emerging technologies in the recent years. While the idea isn’t novel, recent progress in computer graphic, haptic feedback and motion tracking technology have enabled VR with nearly infinite number of applications that present many challenges and opportunities for UX professionals. In my blog post, I will take a look at some of the factors that need to be considered in order to create a successful user experience for virtual reality.


Understanding the constraints of VR experience dictates the level of interaction the user can have in the virtual world. Similar to UX design for other interfaces, it is important to know your users. For example, an experience targeted at young audience who are accustomed to fast movement and locomotion may allow for less constraints while an experience targeted at older audience would be limited by their physical capacity. Because VR is still nascent technology, much of VR interaction is currently constrained by hardware limitations. Most commercial VR headsets such Oculus Rift and HTC Vive still require head-end computers to run at a proper frame rate. In addition, the current crop of mainstream VR headsets are still tethered to the computers thus limiting the user movement.

Scale & Space

It is important consider the physical limitation of the space size and how that will translate into the virtual world. Will the user be wearing the VR headset in a controlled environment? Will the user be seated when wearing the VR headset? Will the virtual environment be spacious or confined? A standing user in spacious environment may allow less physical constraint when designing a VR experience. Depending on our target users’ mental state, the feelings of enclosed space in the virtual world may induce claustrophobia while large spaces may induce agoraphobia. For example, “when a pilot is in the clouds there is nothing to see outside the plane, and it can be very disorienting. When the pilot comes out of the clouds and sees the ground and sky meeting at the horizon, the pilot can orient” (Gibson, 2015). Users can find themselves in such situation in a poorly designed virtual environment, causing inevitable motion sickness. The ground to horizon relationship is as important in VR as in our physical reality (Ravasz, 2016)


Because the wide-view, stereoscopic display creates a three-dimensional image that encourages depth and perspective, VR experience has to be designed in a 360-degree view. We should look at the placement of virtual objects because 20 metres is the limit to stereoscopic separation, meaning that parallax will be lost past this point. Contrastly, 0.5 metres becomes straining on the eyes due to constraints of the hardware’s fixed depth of field (Shanahan, 2016)

The level of interaction with the virtual environment is often determined by the tools available to the user. The affordance of VR interaction is highly dependent on the proper coordination of responsive controllers, motion tracking sensors and other hardware inputs. Depending on the target user’s physical constraint, the user may have the ability to move around the environment using hand controllers or a VR treadmill.

While accurate movement tracking is important for creating an immersive experience, it also produces feedback. Visual, auditory, haptic  feedback become even more critical in VR because of the low barrier to distract a user. Buttons and links of 2D interface become just portals and objects in the virtual world. It’s important to surface feedback in some form and to do so consistently so users understand what “rules” they have for invoking objects and actions (Anderson, 2015)

We can also use spatial audio to enhance immersion or to provide action cues. For example, in virtual reality, changing the environment is just a click of a button. For the user, these sudden and overwhelming changes can cause sickness and confusion. A gentle introduction to the new environment can be achieved by fading-in the ambient soundscape of the place at first, then the image. This allows to build a mental image of the environment via sound, lowering the shock factor (Ravasz, 2016)

What does it mean for UX professionals?

Because VR experience transcends pure aesthetics and requires a level of design thinking that encompasses visual and interaction design, we need to look beyond Graphical User Interface and rethink user experience in the digital world. Designing for VR should not mean transferring 2D interface practices to 3D, but finding a new paradigm. As UX professionals, we need to educate ourselves on subjects such as psychology, architecture, sound design, lighting design and physics to prepare for the changing landscape of human-computer interaction.


Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach To Visual Perception. New York, NY: Psychology Press, 2015. Print.

Jonathan Ravasz, Design Practices in Virtual Reality, 2016,

Kelsey Shanahan, 6 Key Design Considerations in Starting a Virtual Reality Project, 2016,

Samantha Anderson, You’re The Center of The Universe: A UX Guide to Designing Virtual Reality Experiences, 2015,



Design Critique: Google Hangout (Android app)

Google Hangout is a powerful communication platform that combines instant messaging, video chat, SMS and VOIP into one application. Google Hangout, coupled with its companion VOIP application, Hangout Dialer, is the most frequently used application on my smartphone. For those who are unfamiliar, VOIP stands for voice over internet protocol. Hangout integrates Google Voice, a former voicemail application, also developed by Google, to give its user a telephone number. With this telephone number, users can make or receive phone call as long as he or she is connected to the internet. Because the call is delivered through the internet, no cellular service is required.

Like many Google applications, Hangout has adopted the flat minimalist aesthetic that has been gaining popularity in the recent years. Upon the opening of the application, there are two separate tabs that lead to Hangout’s main features: messaging and voice call. Users can immediately locate the features using proper signifiers as shown below.

In messaging, all ongoing conversations are listed chronologically in which the most recent conversation will always appear first.

In voice call, phone calls are listed chronologically with most recent phone calls listed at the top.


At first glance, the interface looks clean with minimal clutter. The controls seem straightforward. However, the simplistic interface is not without its flaws.

Discoverability for Instant Messaging

According to Norman, two of the most important characteristics of good design are discoverability and understanding. With proper signifiers, discoverability allows us to figure out possible actions and how to perform them.

Despite the many features that are built into Hangout, the discoverability of these features can be concealed by the minimalist interface. For example, while it is easy to resume an ongoing conversation by choosing from a list of existing conversation, it is hard for novice users to figure out how to initiate a new conversation. To start a new conversation, the users must touch on the small circular button that is located at bottom right corner as shown below.

While the design of the “new message” button fits well into the minimalist theme of the interface design. The discoverability is limited because the color and shape of the button is the same as the conversation icons in the same screen. In addition, the “plus” used to signify the button function says very little of what it does.


To help improve discoverability, the “new message” button should be in different color. The “plus” signifier should also be changed to something more consistent with the signifier used to indicate messaging or replaced simply with explicit instruction like “New Message” as shown below.

Affordance for SMS

According to Norman, An affordance is a relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could possibly be used. The usage of affordance appears inconsistent throughout Hangout’s interface.

In voice call, there is box for entering the numbers you wish to dial.

In messaging, there is no box for entering numbers for a new SMS.


The messaging feature on Hangout is highly versatile as it combines both instant messaging and SMS. However, just by looking at the messaging interface, it is hard for new user to see that SMS with phone numbers is also supported.


Similar to the voice call interface, I believe adding a box that gives explicit instruction to the messaging interface would improve affordance for this feature as shown below.

Affordance and Discoverability for Incoming Call

 In addition to making voice call, Hangout also allows the user to receive incoming call over the internet like a regular phone. However, as powerful as this feature is, the lack of affordance and discoverability is preventing novice users from accessing this useful feature.

To enable incoming call, the users have to go through Hangout’s elegant, minimalist, but hard to understand interface. The setting menu is located on the top left corner.

After clicking on the setting menu, the user needs to click through two additional screens to locate the setting menu for enabling incoming phone call as shown below.

Step 1

Step 2

In addition to a setting menu that is hard to find, there is also a lack of physical constraints used in settings menu. There are many other settings in the same menu as the setting for enabling incoming phone calls. The switch for turning on a setting is too small for touch screen and there is no prompt or button to confirm or discard changes. The users can accidentally mute notifications in the setting menu without knowing.


In order to make incoming call accessible and minimize the chance of users making unwanted changes in the settings menu. The switch for enabling incoming call should be placed in the voice call interface to improve discoverability as shown below.


All in all, despite the many powerful features that Hangouts offers, its interface is faced with the paradox of technology that is discussed in Design of Everyday Things: the added features enabled by technology also complicates life by making them harder to learn, harder to use. To succumb to this challenge, I think the designers of Hangout have sacrificed affordances and discoverability for elegance and cleanliness, leaving the users to explore the features on their own.