Think back to October 21, 2015, (the date that Marty McFly visited the future in the hit movie “Back To The Future 2”), when everyone was bummed at the realization that the hoverboard hadn’t been put on the consumer market yet.

But oh, have the tables have turned!

Technological advancements have spiraled in a different direction than was commonly portrayed in Hollywood. Instead of futuristic transportation devices, we are presented with futuristic entertainment devices. And the reality of this is unbelievably awesome.

Recently, Oculus made history with the launch of the Rift, the first high-end virtual reality headset sold on the retail market. Its goggles use start-of-the-art displays and optics to trick wearers’ brains into believing the image they’re seeing is their current environment. Thanks to a reasonable price point (around the same cost of a new Apple iPhone), an average person can now purchase this technology.

Top down view of an Oculus Rift headset, with the casing removed

That’s right, folks. We may not be zooming around like McFly, but now we have our very own holodeck. (Trekkies unite!)

Mockup of virtual reality menu or app store

VR is achieved by combining three-dimensional designs with ergonomics. The success of VR is based on the successful application of fundamental user experience techniques to make the user feel as though he or she is immersed in a particular setting. Want to provide a truly unique, first-hand experience to your audience? VR makes it possible to put your audience into a 100 percent designed space with predetermined tasks and goals, while giving the user total control of moving, exploring and learning within this space.

user's view of a virtual reality headset

With the increasing popularity and intrigue of VR, design is evolving to incorporate its requirements and new capabilities. Keep reading to learn more about how UX design can be used to create a believable, immersive VR environment, as well as some common challenges designers encounter when crafting VR.

The Four Cores of UX Design for VR

Crafting an alternative reality is the ultimate test for designing a flawless user experience that can immerse the senses and trick the mind into embracing the false reality. But creating a VR experience is much more complex than the normal 2D and 3D visual production associated with movies & videogames, which presents designers with a whole new set of challenges. Crafting a successful VR experience requires current thinking about UX to evolve in order to accommodate its capabilities and requirements. There are currently four core considerations for the design of virtual reality experiences:

Interactive and Reactive

illustration of person wearing a virtual reality headset

The wide-view, stereoscopic display creates a three-dimensional image that encourages depth and perspective. VR software should constantly track the user’s head and eye movements, allowing the images to move and change with every new perspective, producing visual feedback and creates an illusion of tactile sensation. The experience is highly interactive and reactive because the design responds to a user’s movements and is therefore always changing. That is why a VR experience has to be designed in a 360-degree view. When you’re designing an experience, you have to anticipate and direct the user’s every movement, being mindful of where to direct the eye using sight, sound – and someday, even touch, taste and smell!

Comfort and Ease

Illustration of comfort & ease of a virtual reality experience

The most important quality to creating any successful UX design, especially in VR, is ensuring that the user is comfortable throughout the experience. Allowing the user to have complete control of all movements and using other tricks to reduce motion sickness (or “virtual reality sickness”), brightness changes and velocity mismatches are very important. In fact, the chance of simulator sickness was one major hindrance to the technology’s development.

Ability to view and use controls, click on buttons and other design-focused features must be implemented to avoid confusing or frustrating the users. In other words, give the user the ability and ease to completely control their own experience. That is what virtual reality is all about, right? The ability to fully experience a different world and to control your every movement within that world.

Text and Image Scale

illustration of text scale in virtual reality

The word of the day in the virtual world is ‘realistic.’ Think about it, you are trying to create an experience that completely envelops the user. Details matter. All visuals should be clear and easily legible, preventing eye strain while also keeping perspective in mind. Adding more and more detail to an object as the user moves closer to it will help establish realistic depth (and vice versa). Large, bold and colorful text will be noticed best by the user.


illustration of sound in a virtual reality experience

Music and high-quality sound effects are a pivotal feature to encourage experience immersion. By applying positional audio and 3D audio effects to VR, the user will know the direction in which certain sounds originated in relation to where they are, or the audio could be made to sound like it is originating from all sorts of directions, giving the user the illusion of being in the middle of a particular environment. Giving users a volume control may also be a good idea to help the user find a comfortable range.

Virtual Reality Challenges to Anticipate

Photo of a person wearing virtual reality goggles

As designers and developers dive deeper into the new and exciting world of VR, this unfamiliar type of experience is bound to be used in ways we have not yet considered and thus will have challenges and benefits that have yet to be discovered. However, plenty of user testing has brought current design challenges to the surface.

While the goal for an effective and enjoyable VR experience is accomplished by utilizing fundamental UX principles, creating VR is easier said than done. Designers will have to diligently minimize users’ frustrations and confusion by cramming detail and user functionality into every inch of the reactive design.

Here are some of the most prevalent problems when designing VR and how to overcome them:

Make it look and feel real

Illustration of virtual reality design philosophy: make it look and feel real

Do not ignore any details and always give users complete control. This highly interactive, 360-degree world must seem so realistic that users forget it is VR. Give the user the ability to interact in every possible way, including the ability to touch, pick up and throw all types of objects.

Make sure users don’t get simulation sickness

Motion sickness occurs when physical and visual motion cues give a user adverse information. The keys to preventing users from getting motion sick while using VR are effective head tracking, which keeps some objects in fixed positions no matter the user’s movement. Also, keep a high frame rate and never drop frames. Other ways to combat simulation sickness is to minimize periphery movement in the design and to not attempt to accelerate the user (aka: do not simulate changes in velocity).

Develop easy-to-use controls and menus

Illustration of virtual reality design philosophy: develop easy-to-use controls and menus

This is a challenge that designers are still working on. Since navigational menus and other controls cannot be placed in corners of the screen (because in VR, there are no corners or endpoints to your view), they must remain easily accessible and user-friendly. Some VR games place the controls on the user’s VR hands and menu navigation is performed using one’s head. Be as creative as possible with experimenting, but if the controls and menus are difficult to operate or find, chances are that your VR design will get a big thumbs down from the users. A quick tutorial prior to the experience can help onboard the user to avoid frustration.

Keep the user safe

Illustration of virtual reality design philosophy: keep the user safe

While users will be exploring large, new spaces, the physical reality is that the user’s body is still trapped inside a living room or bedroom. There lies the problem: how do we allow users to keep walking when they are really in a finite space much smaller than the VR world? One company built a small treadmill-type machine that VR users can walk on.

The HTC Vive has a Chaperone feature, which warns users before they hit an object in the real world and has other helpful functionality, such as the ability to see control cords so users do not get tangled and trip. We will have to ensure that VR does not pose serious safety threats to the users.

Make it work for everyone. It is important to consider the varying heights and sizes of people. Do not place critical items out of reach for younger or shorter users. Also, take different preferences and physical handicaps into consideration by creating various modes and allowing users to be seated while visiting an alternate reality.

Test and then test again. First of all, many professionals recommend that designers experience VR before they attempt to design for it. Repeatedly test your VR design on people of varying backgrounds (differing ages and video game experience, for example) because different people react differently to the same stimuli.


An Infinite World with Infinite Possibilities

Photo of a woman wearing a virtual reality headset

Sure, VR technology has been around for decades, but the recent deployment of affordable VR devices will initiate more and more consumer intrigue. Soon, all types of companies will be seeking to extend their brand presences into this space.

You better begin brainstorming.

It’s safe to say the possibilities for VR are endless. When will VR movies replace 3D on the big screen? Will VR change the world of advertising? Will there be a day when we can walk through the Internet like the cast did in “Futurama”?

The following are some general categories that will merge with VR and some the core functionalities to keep in mind when designing the experience:

Top down view of virtual reality equipment


Games – All types of entertainment activities, from video games to card games to sports can be amplified, expanded and improved with the integration of VR. Even though users will be immersed in the game, it is still equally important to teach the player how to play the game and motivate them to improve. Also, be mindful that there is a greater chance of virtual reality sickness when players are up on their feet.

Training – Training simulations for professionals like pilots, astronauts, doctors, soldiers and police officers can become more accurate, complex and cost-effective. Simulations must approximate the real situation integrated with data to clearly educate the trainee on right and wrong actions and their outcomes.

Photo of the back of a woman's head, wearing a virtual reality headset

Learning – This technology can be used for educational classes, labs, webinars and demonstrations. To make this experience truly immersive, consider how the attendee may interact with objects, paying close attention to perspective and depth in design.

Shopping – Instead of looking at a 2D image of an object online, shoppers in VR will have the ability to pick up an object and look at it in detail. Along with the design challenges mentioned in virtual learning situations, VR designers will also have to create user-friendly ways for shoppers to access virtual wallets–whatever that may be. Have you ever tried digging out your credit card, while wearing the world’s most expensive and technologically-advanced blindfold?

Customer Service – Placing customer service representatives in VR could give your audience a unique, intimate experience with a brand and may help increase customer satisfaction. The challenge here will be creating a realistic person-to-person experience with proper realism to truly have an authentic service exchange.

Advertising – When a new technological medium emerges, advertising will always follow. There is already a company claiming to have launched the first VR ad network and its advertising options don’t seem too bad. Text can be challenging in VR since it is a 360-degree world. It needs to be organically placed with large lettering and easy-to-read colors to make an impact.

Communication – Communicating, in general, will drastically change with the help of VR. Video conferencing sites, such as Skype, and all types of meeting and networking sites have everything to gain. Crafting a system with sound levels appropriate for depth will make for a more realistic chatroom.

Image of a hand pushing a Like button, and virtual reality controllers

Social Media – New social media sites, as well as existing sites, might one day utilize VR to create certain environments that encourage gatherings of friends. Like the gaming industry, this will likely require some onboarding so that users understand which movements will achieve their desired actions.

Traveling – You could instantly tour different hotels, walk down the streets of an exotic place, stand on the edge of a cruise ship or visit a wild animal park without leaving your living room. These experiences will have to be designed with acute attention to detail, from sound and visual depth and perspective to fluctuations in the environment and objects should a user choose to interact.

Planning – VR can greatly enhance planning phases for engineers, with all types of projects from new car designs to bridges to civic engineers creating an entire city. Like learning simulations, design choices can be integrated with data to allow engineers and architects experience their creations before they are built.

Movies – Imagine a world where VR replaces 3D and even 2D movies. It sounds pretty intense, but if this were the case, the movie would probably be much less reactive to movie-goers than a video game, but the experience would be surreal. Perspective and sound will play a huge role in making a movie experience immersive, while still being able to control the experience, such as prompting a viewer to look left or right.

Dating – VR opens an entirely new set of possibilities for the world of online dating, long distance relationships and the adult service industry.

Virtual Reality: Made Possible by UX

Two hands, holding a virtual reality headset

The next multidimensional plane is ready to be explored, giving birth to an entirely new arena for consumerism, marketing, education and collaboration. Achieving believable VR necessitates that UX evolve quickly in order to accommodate these new capabilities. The four pillars of VR — interactive & reactive design, comfort and ease, text and image scale, and sound — are just the start as VR is slowly applied to many different mediums and facets of life. As experience designers, we are going to confront whole new challenges to solve in a whole new way.

We may not be quite at Marty McFly’s level just yet, but the future is promising. Besides, who needs an accident-prone hoverboard when you can safely fly through exotic lands in VR?

Want to know more about designing for VR? Check out these articles and resources:

The storyteller’s guide to the virtual reality audience (Stanford

Immersive design: learning to let go of the screen (Backchannel)