Imagining the Future of UI Design in Virtual Reality
Nov 2nd, 2017
User interface design is moving faster than ever. With the growing momentum of technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality, a designer’s job is slowly but steadily shifting away from the more traditional mediums. Despite its popularity and media coverage, virtual reality is very much still in its infancy. It will not begin to make any major waves until its adoption starts to become mainstream. As it stands, it’s a niche product with exciting capabilities and a glimpse into how we will probably be interacting with all digital products in the next decade.
As a designer, it’s exciting at this stage to explore how user interface design is likely to evolve, should this become mainstream. It will signal a massive shift in both how we work, and what skills will be necessary to produce high quality products within this new medium.
In this article, we are going to highlight some of the main areas and considerations around designing for virtual reality. We’re also going to analyse some existing examples and mockups from leading designers. At this stage, simply considering these and becoming aware of the potential will allow you chance to adapt as time goes on. It’s a fast-paced industry and the next thing is always just around the corner. It’s important to be ready when that next thing arrives.
For the user, this is an entirely new way of interacting with a product. A designer has to consider factors that will enable an optimal user experience. To begin with, there needs to be consistency with how users interact with the virtual reality interface. This currently relies on the controller hardware but in time there will become a loosely agreed-upon format for how these interfaces are consistent across applications and dashboards. This is similar to Android and iOS: they are different but generally follow the same standards and flows.
There is also a greater area to play with when it comes to virtual reality. There are multiple dimensions and an expansive space in which to locate user interface elements. They key here is to not become carried away with this abundance of space. Instead it’s important to apply constraints and consider the comfort zone of a user. This has been recommended by Mike Alger to be within a 94° horizontal space and a 32° vertical space.
With the user interface, there is a translation from existing two-dimensional designs. Fundamentally, it follows the same considerations with just a few further details to keep in mind. One is the greater depth and possibility for using this in ways that would not be successful via a traditional two-dimensional medium. Take this example which not only utilizes the front and right areas, it also contains background visuals.
A virtual reality designer also has to consider aspects like contrast against backgrounds, ease-of-interaction, and appropriate sizing for a comfortable experience. With it being a more immersive experience than mobile or desktop, there is greater emphasis on the ways in which a user interacts with design elements. The desktop uses a keyboard and mouse. Mobile took this further and introduced multi touch and voice input. Virtual reality looks to expand upon this by using hand gestures and head movements. This form of input requires consideration from a user interface design standpoint. This includes aspects like providing feedback for when a user is hovering over an element, or performing something like a drag and drop action.
The process of designing for virtual reality is still somewhat unclear. While there are some great templates like this one for Sketch, the way we design for this medium is unlikely to use design software as we know it.
To successfully form a process whereby optimal results can be produced, software will need to adapt to account for multiple planes and foreground/background elements. We’ll likely see a shift over time where companies like Sketch and Figma begin to experiment with this. They’ll likely produce accompanying preview functionality for headsets as they do now with their mirror app counterparts on mobile. This will allow designers to effectively design in virtual reality, with live feedback on how their products look and perform. Some have touted Unity as the most appropriate engine for producing virtual reality designs at this early stage. Their website includes comprehensive tutorials on getting started.
It’s going to signal a shift away from pixel-perfection, and to a process more focused on user experience and overall visual concept. Despite this, it’s unlikely to have a negative impact on user interface designers. Products will still need a great deal of visual direction and careful consideration to achieve a successful design system and consistency throughout an application.