Disruptive technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality radically change how we behave and interact with our world. As a consequence, they open up interesting new territories in UX research, too. VR in UX research can serve as an individual tool to explore user needs and test complex user experiences. We collected some best practices for those looking to learn more about or just getting started with VR user testing.
So why does VR even matter? Its technologies can bring immersive experiences into people’s homes like no other technology can. It can take people places they can’t afford to visit, help teach new skills, even fight phobias.
As a UX researcher, I’m really excited about how this new technology is changing my field of expertise. With its multi-sensory and interactive features, VR presents a wide range of opportunities to take advantage of its potentials.
VR in UX research
So, how could UX research also benefit from VR technologies? By building virtual prototypes of an environment or service, one can test the context in which users interact with a product. This gives a clearer picture of the complexity of the whole experience more cost-effectively. What real-life examples show where to use VR as a research tool?
We at our UX company always get really excited when new technologies bear the potential of changing the way we work! Below, we are listing a few areas where we see that virtual reality research of user experience is already in practice or might soon become the industry norm. The application of VR in these areas of UX research may bring about amazing progress that we are super excited about!
Applications of VR user testing in retail
Take store layouts. It is now possible to build store layouts in VR first to test and compare them. Keep in mind, however, that testing interactions for the whole store to make it more realistic proves technically more difficult and requires more programming. Still, it comes much more cost-effectively compared to renting a place and building up many layouts.
Testing in a VR retail space offers unique opportunities – test and compare several solutions and capture metrics with users before implementing in real life, saving time and money. You can even prototype customer service interactions and compare how they perform, too.
VR user testing in the service industry
With virtual reality research in UX, it is now possible to test complex user experiences and services, like an airport security system.
Assurity, a New Zealand-based technology delivery consultancy tested how passengers move through the customs gates at Christchurch International Airport in New Zealand. They designed a physical space and tested it in VR.
The technology helped them better understand how users would use the space and what their preferences were. In the end, they increased the space after aviation security and divided it according to the users’ preferred layout. (Check out the case study here.)
WYMA Engineering, a New Zealand-based engineering company uses VR to model their factories, so users (and later, clients) can experience what these factories would look and feel like before being built.
VR can simulate almost any type of real space.
- Workplace occupational safety: VR modeling can be very helpful in tackling safety issues in hazardous workplaces such as construction sites, where it is essential for people to be adequately trained before entering. Same goes for airline in-cabin training.
- Curing mental and physical health problems: VR is already being applied in many different healthcare domains. An interesting but surprising example: it can be useful for curing phobias!
- Educational and training environments: with VR, educators provide learners with a virtual environment where they can develop skills without the real-world consequences of failing.
Facilitating an environment where users can demonstrate and improve their competency whilst experiencing the consequence of mistakes delivers an unparalleled level of learning. We all know, after all, that fields such as primary education, military, astronaut training, flight simulators, driver training and many others have used and studied even before the advent of VR that we are now experiencing.
Virtual reality offers a cost-effective tool to study and replicate user interactions in a controlled environment.
Best practices for VR user research
VR in user experience blurs the line between a conventional moderated usability test session and a contextual interview. These characteristics include some unique factors to consider. We have collected some:
1. The physical environment: Consider how much space the participant will need to operate in, and in which surroundings (open-air sessions)? Specific “mixed reality labs” offer spaces to run augmented and virtual reality user research sessions.
They provide the kits (head-mounted displays like Oculus Rift and Microsoft Hololens) and a space to configure according to needs of the research.
2. The technology: Really get to know what you will work with. Involve a developer or product designer in the process and work in a cross-functional team, which has many advantages.
Since the technology is fairly new, it has no common interaction style yet, so you will be testing the software and hardware together. This can pose a challenge for both the participant and the research team.
3. Safety – Remove all obstacles (cables, etc) so users can maneuver freely.
4. The hardware – Make the headset comfortable even for people with glasses.
5. Hygiene – VR experiences can get sweaty. Keep the headset clean between sessions.
6. Recruitment – When planning recruitment for VR testing, the first thing you might ask is: do you want participants new to VR or not? Obviously, an individual’s digital literacy and experience in VR correlates to the time needed to onboard and get used to the experience.
But don’t get bogged down at this point. These technologies are still emerging and many future users have yet to adopt. Instead, focus on other traits as with conventional user testing, for example, if the participant would likely become a user.
7. Research plan: VR contains a physical and non-physical experience as well. Make it clear what you’re testing, even with the users. Are you testing their experience with the device setup or the in-app experience? What characteristics in their behavior are you observing? What are you recording and how? Set your research goals and define variables to observe and record well before starting.
8. Privacy: Apps can collect data about users’ surroundings and their actions. As in non-VR studies, clarify what it collects and how it uses that data, especially if running tests in the user’s home.
II. VR user testing
Consider the differences between VR and conventional user tests during the sessions:
1. Unfamiliarity with the technology: Leave enough preparation time for users to get familiar with the technology, headsets, and surroundings. Let them practice a few minutes before they dive into the “other world”. Help them feel safe throughout the test.
Consider also in which order the participant will go through different experiences. Don’t “shock” them too early. As they become more familiar with the controls, their experience likely will improve automatically.
2. Cyber-sickness: Prepare for situations where some participants might get nauseated. But don’t make a self-fulfilling prophecy; just tell them they can take a break at any time.
Note symptoms and causes (such as frame rate, sudden acceleration, session length, standing versus seated position, the age of the participant) and do not proceed without getting them fixed.
Take responsibility for your participants and don’t let them leave the room with a bad experience. In such cases, you need to have enough capacity that allows for session terminations, so it’s a good idea to over-recruit.
3. Facilitation: Running VR sessions requires lot more vigilance than conventional user tests. Many more factors need attention and recording, such as: noting verbal and non-verbal clues while keeping an eye on what the user is looking at and how they interact. You also have to make sure they don’t walk into anything or get tangled up in cables.
Facilitation also proves harder in VR because the user experiences an entirely constructed physical environment different from the context of the interviewer. The interviewer can’t immerse themselves in the environment at the same time, and a disembodied “interviewer” voice could ruin the experience. But asking questions to understand the user’s experience is unavoidable.
Facilitation techniques can surely improve in this area, but some solutions might help reduce distraction, such as a facilitator within the same VR space or interactive avatars.
4. Recording and note taking: The large headsets covering the users’ heads or subjects looking in another direction make it harder to read facial expressions and emotional responses in VR sessions. Additional observation tools such as cameras and more note taking participants can help catch all of the important feedback.
5. Participants: A note taker can assume some of the facilitator’s workload. Leave enough space for them to move and follow the participant’s movements.
III. After the test
Post-interview: Give participants enough time to reflect on what they have seen. Ask more questions after the VR part of the session ends. At this point, fill out a Simulation Sickness Questionnaire and make sure participants feel OK physically.
The rise in virtual reality has increased user research and related testing. As with any other forms of research and testing, it requires a considered approach. While user research in VR shares many aspects with other research projects, significant differences also arise.
We hope our collection of tips has helped you. The opportunities VR presents for experimentation open new frontiers for user research to unfold.
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