A group of people working together. One is standing, the other three are sitting around a desk. A whiteboard with sketches and notes on it is behind them. One of the people seated is wearing a VR headset. They are gesturing with their hands. The other thr

How to Understand User Needs in Virtual Reality

by Molly Fitz-Patrick | | 16 min read

The principles of the UX process extend into the realm of 3D experiences, and user research unlocks the true potential of a VR experience. We’ll delve into the world of user research and uncover its two vital components: user needs analysis and testing. 

In this video, UX consultant Frank Spillers talks about user research in the context of virtual reality.

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As Frank says, user research is a critical aspect of any UX project. We need to have a deep understanding of our users and their requirements to create impactful and immersive VR experiences. Let’s explore the significance of user research in VR design, some user research techniques we can use at different stages of the design process and how to practically conduct the user research. 

The Importance of User Research in VR

User research is essential in VR because the medium is still relatively new and constantly evolving. User research helps us identify user needs, preferences, and pain points—which is crucial if we want to design solutions that meet those needs. 

VR can elicit strong emotional responses from users. We need to identify potential issues related to motion sickness (also known as cybersickness), discomfort, and other negative reactions that users may experience during VR experiences, and user research does exactly that. Once we have identified and understood these issues, we can work to mitigate them and improve the overall user experience.

What Are the Best User Research Methods for VR?

User Needs Analysis

User needs analysis gives us a deeper understanding of the requirements, preferences, and challenges of our target users. You will gather and analyze information about the specific needs, goals, and expectations of the individuals who will use your VR experience. With a user needs analysis, you will get valuable insights into what your users truly desire and what problems they seek to solve. User needs analysis should happen early in the design process so that the experience that you create is informed with valid research and meets users' needs. 

Here are some research methods you can use for your user needs analysis:

  1. User Interviews: Conduct one-on-one interviews with potential users of your VR experience. Ask open-ended questions to understand their goals, expectations, preferences, and pain points related to VR in general and questions related to the kind of experience you want to create. User interviews can provide rich qualitative data and help you uncover insights that will determine how you design your product.

  2. Observational Studies: Observe users as they interact with existing VR experiences or prototypes. Pay attention to their behavior, gestures, and reactions. This method allows you to understand how users naturally navigate and interact with virtual environments and identify usability issues or areas of improvement.

  3. Surveys and Questionnaires: Develop surveys or questionnaires to collect quantitative data from a larger sample of users. This method can help you gather demographic information, preferences, and opinions on specific aspects of the VR experience. Survey results (once analyzed) can provide insights into user preferences and guide design decisions.

  4. Card Sorting: Card sorting techniques will help you to understand how users organize and categorize content within the VR experience. This method helps identify patterns in users' mental models and can inform the information architecture and navigation design of your VR experience.

  5. User Feedback / Testing / Usability Testing: It’s essential to conduct Iterative testing throughout the design process to obtain user feedback. While testing generally occurs once there is something to test, it can be extremely beneficial to test basic prototypes or mockups of your VR experience. Get users to perform specific tasks while you observe their interactions. Usability tests and feedback on prototypes will help you identify usability issues, validate design decisions, and refine the VR experience based on user input.

Ideally, we should combine multiple methods to get more reliable and comprehensive results. Each method has its strengths, so consider the research objectives, resources available, and the characteristics of your target audience when selecting the most appropriate methods for your VR design project.


Testing usually happens later on in the design process, once we’ve created prototypes or mockups; however, some testing can be done early on as we discussed earlier and it’s important to be aware of the entire process even if we are just starting our design. 

Regular testing ensures a user-centered and immersive design. We will evaluate the usability, functionality, and overall user experience of the virtual environment. Through user testing, we will learn how users interact with the VR interface, navigate through the virtual space, and perform tasks.

Methods like usability testing, where participants are observed while performing specific tasks, allow us to identify pain points, usability issues, and areas for improvement. This helps to optimize the interaction design, intuitive controls, and user interface elements within the VR experience.

Here are some methods for testing a VR experience: 

  1. Cognitive Walkthroughs: Cognitive walkthroughs will assess the learnability and effectiveness of your VR experience. Step through the user journey and imagine how users with varying levels of experience and familiarity would perceive and interact with the environment. Identify potential points of confusion or cognitive overload and refine the design accordingly.

  2. A/B Testing: Implement A/B testing to compare different design variations or features of your VR experience. Create two or more versions with distinct design elements and collect user feedback and performance data. A/B testing allows you to objectively evaluate which design choices are more effective and preferred by users.

  3. Eye-Tracking Studies: Eye-tracking technology helps us understand users' visual attention and gaze patterns within the VR environment. This method provides insights into the effectiveness of the Field of View (FoV), which elements or areas attract the most attention and whether users are noticing important visual cues or information. Eye-tracking studies can inform the placement and visibility of critical elements within the experience.

  4. Post-Experience Surveys: Administer surveys or questionnaires to users after they have completed the VR experience. Ask for their overall satisfaction, specific feedback on different aspects, and suggestions for improvement. Post-experience surveys provide valuable insights into users' perceptions, emotions, and overall impressions of the VR experience.

  5. Usability testing: Develop interactive prototypes of your VR experience and conduct usability tests with users. Observe how they use hardware like VR headsets, navigate the virtual environment, interact with objects, and complete tasks. Prototype testing helps uncover usability issues, gather user feedback, and validate design decisions before final implementation.

The Take Away

User research is a key component of VR design that enables you to create impactful experiences that meet user needs. You should conduct user needs analysis to understand the requirements and challenges of your target users and guide your design from an early stage. Techniques such as user interviews, observational studies and surveys provide valuable insights into user preferences. Additionally, perform usability testing to evaluate the usability and overall user experience of your VR experience. Other testing methods like A/B testing and eye-tracking can help you identify areas for improvement and refine your design.

References and Where to Learn More

Learn more about card sorting in our piece, “Card Sorting: How To Get Started” or better yet, watch our Master Class on it. 

Check out The Nielsen Norman Group’s observer guidelines for usability research.

UXStudio’s blog, “VR In UX Research: All You Need To Know About VR User Testing” provides some best practices for this activity.

Read this Medium article, “A fundamental guide to user testing in Virtual Reality”.

Read a usability test tutorial for VR.


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Fitz-Patrick, M. (2023, November 8). How to Understand User Needs in Virtual Reality. Interaction Design Foundation - IxDF.

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New to UX Design? We’re Giving You a Free ebook!

The Basics of User Experience Design

Download our free ebook The Basics of User Experience Design to learn about core concepts of UX design.

In 9 chapters, we’ll cover: conducting user interviews, design thinking, interaction design, mobile UX design, usability, UX research, and many more!

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313,519 designers enjoy our newsletter—sure you don’t want to receive it?