Man wearing VR headset and interacting in the virtual reality with hand controllers

Design for Virtual Reality: Top Learnings from the IxDF Course

by Mads Soegaard | | 58 min read
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Will the future of user experience design exist on screens or in immersive, three-dimensional spaces? It's now possible to design for both views and interactions within a boundless digital environment. Virtual Reality (VR) opens this new frontier and allows designers to craft user experiences beyond traditional boundaries. Learn more about immersive technology that brings stories to life in the IxDF UX Design for Virtual Reality course. 

Imagine you step away from the confines of flat, 2D screens and enter a new, vibrant world of UX design. A world where ideas take shape in three dimensions, interactions feel natural and the lines between imagination and reality blur. This is what VR is all about—a simulation that takes us into a new era of how we craft user-centric experiences. 

The traditional toolkit of screens, buttons and touch interfaces once defined the boundaries of user interaction for designers. But VR offers a limitless canvas to craft experiences beyond 2D visual displays. With the power to immerse users in entirely simulated environments, you can now tap into deeper levels of engagement, empathy and understanding. This is the promise of UX design within virtual reality. 

Virtual reality and its environment.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

If you want to learn how to design better user experiences for virtual reality, learn about these top five things.  

1. UX Fundamentals for VR 

You require a unique approach to user experience (UX) if you want to design for Virtual Reality (VR). Unlike traditional screens, you need to understand immersive environments and how users interact for VR. Learn about the fundamentals that shape the entire user journey to master VR design.  

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) represents an immersive, computer-simulated experience. This technology either mirrors the real world or crafts entirely new environments. Users engage with VR through headsets or specialized displays. These devices create interactive, 3D spaces. Ideally, VR allows users to move and interact with their surroundings as they would in reality. 

Effective VR offers experiences beyond our physical limits. Yet, inadequate VR can frustrate users and even cause discomfort, known as cybersickness or VR sickness. Often, issues arise from hardware limitations and when designers neglect UX design principles. You must focus on user-centered design for successful VR experiences. 

VR technology has improved over time. Users now have many hardware choices—these range from standalone systems to smartphone-based VR. Companies like Oculus, HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR lead the industry. VR now has high-resolution visuals, precise tracking and better interaction methods. These improvements make VR more realistic. 

Watch this quick video to understand the history of VR.  

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UX Design Process in VR

VR design follows a path if continuous discovery and improvement. The journey of the UX design process in VR includes three core stages: Define, Make and Learn. 

The Define, Make and Learn process helps you to embrace iteration and create user-centric VR experiences.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Define: Here, you become a detective. Your mission is to uncover the purpose of your VR experience. You must research to understand your users and their needs. 

  • Make: This is where the fun begins as you build your virtual world. You can create simple prototypes and design the space around the user. Consider comfortable movements and easy-to-use controls. 

  • Learn: Research never stops in VR design. You must test your experience with real users. Watch how they interact. Be open to feedback and make changes to improve the experience. Prioritize comfort. If your VR has a story element, craft it carefully with visual and audio cues. 

You must follow certain guidelines that will help you provide design VR experiences: 

  • User comfort is vital. Avoid designs that might cause dizziness. 

  • Great VR uses effective visuals and audio to immerse the user. 

  • Provide clear feedback on user actions. Did they successfully interact with an object? 

  • Test with real users every step of the way. 

  • Make your experience accessible to users with disabilities. 

Create better VR experience for people with vision, mobility, hearing and neural disability.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Transition from 2D UX Design to 3D for VR 

You must learn how to design 3D experiences if you want to design for VR. Here are three key things you must keep in mind:  

Master the Design Process 

You must understand the design process in VR, which is similar to traditional UX design but requires you to adapt to three-dimensional environments. Use storyboards, sketches and simple design tools before you move to advanced stages. This foundation will help you create immersive and user-centered VR experiences. 

Develop Spatial Design Skills 

Acquire skills in spatial design to navigate the 3D space of VR. Whether your background is in architecture or industrial design or you have only started, focus on spatial awareness. This helps you design intuitive and natural interactions for users that help enhance the overall experience. 

Learn Technical Tools Proactively 

While formal education in VR design focuses on theory, you must have practical skills in tools like Unity or Unreal Engine. Embrace self-learning through online resources and community tutorials. Engage with these tools to understand their capabilities and collaborate with a coder to understand it better. This approach will equip you with the necessary skills to effectively prototype and test VR designs. 

2. User Research Essentials for VR 

A person holding the VR device while the other person uses it. 

You can design user-centered VR experiences based on strong user research. In virtual environments, you must understand users' unique needs, behaviors and pain points. This knowledge helps you create successful VR solutions.  

User research lays the foundation for the VR experiences you will design. Watch Frank Spillers, CEO at Experience Dynamics, discuss how to understand user needs in virtual reality.  

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Identify the "Why" Behind User Choices in VR

You can use two important components of user research that will help you understand the user needs and choices in the VR world: User needs analysis and testing.

User Needs Analysis: Get to Know Your Users 

This research reveals your users' goals, likes and dislikes. Start this process early. This way, you design a solution that solves your users' problems. Here are some methods: 

  • User interviews: Talk to potential users one-on-one. Ask open-ended questions to understand what they want and their pain points. 

  • Observational studies: Watch how users interact with VR. Notice how they move and react. You'll spot usability issues and areas to improve. 

  • Surveys and questionnaires: Gather data from many users. This helps you gather statistics on users and their preferences. 

  • Card sorting: See how users group information within VR. This guides your navigation and information design decisions. 

Testing: Improve Your VR Experience 

Testing is crucial in the later stages, but you can perform it with simple prototypes. Regular testing keeps your design focused on the user. Here are some methods: 

  • Cognitive walkthroughs: Imagine how different users would understand your VR experience. Find areas that might confuse the users and make them clearer. 

  • A/B testing: Compare two design versions. Get user feedback to see which version works better. 

  • Eye-tracking studies: See where users focus their eyes in VR. Ensure important elements are visible and noticeable. 

  • Post-experience surveys: Ask users about their experience after they use VR. Get their feedback and suggestions. 

  • Usability testing: Create interactive VR prototypes. Observe users as they navigate, interact and complete tasks. Find pain points and make improvements.

Key Strategies to Design for All in VR 

VR has the potential to offer awesome experiences for everyone. To make VR truly inclusive, consider these key strategies: 

Prioritize Comfort and Ease of Use 

  • Minimize motion sickness: Design with care to reduce effects that induce motion sickness. Use smooth camera movements, provide a stable visual reference point within the scene and allow users to take breaks when needed. 

  • Flexible input methods: Offer a variety of input methods (like controllers, voice commands and gestures) to support users with diverse motor abilities. 

Customize for Individual Needs 

  • Adjustable settings: Allow users to adjust text size, color schemes, contrast, brightness and audio levels. This lets them tailor the visual and auditory elements to their needs and preferences. 

  • Adaptable difficulty: Offer different difficulty levels or hints to support users of all skill levels. 

Emphasize Multisensory Design 

  • Combine visuals and sound: Use clear visuals and audio cues together. This helps users with vision or hearing impairments. 

  • Haptic feedback: Haptic feedback (vibrations, textures) enhances interactions and provides non-visual cues.  

Inclusive User Testing

  • Test with diverse users: Work with people with disabilities in the testing process. Their feedback will help you find and fix things that make your VR experience less accessible. 

  • Iterate and improve: Use your feedback to improve your VR experience. Always look for ways to make it more accessible. 

3. Design for Immersion and Presence in VR 

A person wearing a VR device.

Immersion makes you feel like you're inside the virtual world. Presence is even deeper—the feeling that the virtual world is real. Let's see how you can design VR experiences that make users feel fully immersed and present.

Essential Elements to Design For Immersion and Presence

You can focus on several key elements that optimize how users perceive and interact with the VR environment. Let's explore the five essential elements that facilitate deeper immersion and presence:  

  1. Visual realism: You need detailed visuals to make users feel like they have entered another world. High-quality graphics, realistic lighting and believable textures (whether you aim for real-world accuracy or a fantastical look) trick the users' brain to accept the virtual environment as a real place. 

  1. Spatial audio: Sound is just as important as what users see. Spatial audio changes sounds based on their location in the VR world, just like in real life. This adds another layer of realism and helps users understand their surroundings within the virtual space. 

  1. Interactivity and agency: Users feel present when they interact with the VR world. When the environment reacts to user actions and choices, it feels more meaningful and they become an active participant, not just someone watching. 

  1. Narrative and engagement: A good story draws users in and makes the experience feel personal. Interactive stories designed for VR are even more powerful. When the story unfolds based on user choices, it creates a strong sense of presence and makes the world feel like it's built around them. 

  1. Balance realism and safety: While you must focus on realism, user safety must always come first. Design VR experiences to avoid things that might cause motion sickness or overwhelm the user. Find a balance between immersion and comfort to create a positive and enjoyable experience. 

Bring Storytelling into Your VR Experience 

Two people wearing VR devices and using them.

Storytelling creates deep and purposeful experiences to enrich VR. Follow these ten steps to integrate effective storytelling into your VR projects: 

You can build a narrative around your VR experience to provide a better user experience. Frank Spillers shows you how to use narrative as a design tool.  

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  1. Understand your audience and goals: Identify who your users are and what you aim to evoke through the VR experience. This will direct your narrative strategy. 

  1. Conceptualize the story: Use brainstorming, mind maps, storyboards, mood boards and user journeys to outline your story. Define the theme, setting, characters and narrative arc. Consider how VR's immersive nature can elevate these elements. 

  1. Embrace immersion: Utilize VR's capabilities to create a convincing presence within the story. Develop environments and characters that users can connect with. Employ spatial audio, lifelike visuals and interactive elements to deepen immersion. 

  1. Create a compelling hook: Start with a good opening that grabs attention and sets the tone. Use visual and auditory cues to steer user focus and draw them into the narrative. 

  1. Establish narrative flow: Keep the narrative engaging with a well-paced story. Use a structured story arc with tension, conflicts and resolution to maintain interest. 

  1. Point of view, field of view, multiple perspectives and experiences: Use VR's unique feature to offer various perspectives. Decide whether to use a first-person or third-person viewpoint. Allow users to switch between different perspectives or characters to add depth and engagement. 

  1. Offer agency and choice: Include decision-making points where users' choices impact the story's outcome. These decisions should carry weight and affect the narrative. It provides users with a sense of control over the experience. 

  1. Use sound and music: Sound and music set the atmosphere and emotional tone. Spatial audio can solidify the user's presence and align the music with the story's emotional cues. 

  1. Immerse users in environments: Design detailed environments that support your narrative. Users should feel they are part of the world you create where every detail contributes to the story. 

  1. Test and iterate: Prototype your VR story with real hardware like VR headsets. Collect user feedback on their emotional reactions and interactions. Refine the narrative based on this feedback to enhance the story and user experience. 

Use Improv for an Immersive Experience 

Improvisation, often seen in comedy and performance, generates ideas from a non-judgmental state. It means to continue with whatever emerges and to build on it. A common method is the "Yes and..." technique to prompt further improvisation. 

Improvisation can help you act out parts of the spatial UI in prototyping. Designers often make users walk through the space as they build the story experience in VR UX design. 

Consider a VR adaptation of a children's book. A character draws your hands as you enter the VR world. This action gradually introduces you to their world and enhances your role as a co-creator of the experience. 

Focus on Imagineering for VR 

Disney coined the term Imagineering. It refers to the blend of imagination and engineering to create engaging experiences. You assign magical properties to ordinary objects to enhance interactions in VR. 

Imagineering stimulates creative thinking about the narrative and emotional aspects of VR environments. It helps you design experiences that feel both logical and magical. 

In the VR game Job Simulator, to exit the game, players eat a burrito labeled "Exit." This playful exit method aligns with the game's setting in a kitchen. It enhances the user's emotional connection to the experience by integrating a typical kitchen item as a game mechanic. 

Create an Emotion-Driven Immersive Design

You can create memorable user experiences if you design for emotions in Virtual Reality (VR. As you target specific emotions, you can connect more profoundly with users. The aim is to guide their feelings and reactions throughout the VR journey. This approach enhances user engagement and reinforces the narrative impact of the experience. Here's how you can do it:  

Define Your Emotional Objective 

Determine the specific emotion you want—joy, fear, empathy, curiosity or another feeling. Understand how this emotion supports your narrative, theme or message. A well-defined emotional objective shapes every aspect of your VR experience. It includes the story, characters, environment and interactions. 

Use Immersive Storytelling Techniques 

VR allows users to immerse themselves in the narrative and influence the outcome. You can employ different storytelling techniques to enhance the experience. These include:  

  • 360-degree audio and visual cues: Surround the user with sights and sounds that match the intended mood. Focus their attention on key elements within the virtual environment.  

  • Branching narratives: Offer users choices that lead to different paths and outcomes in the story. This empowers users and gives them a sense of ownership over the experience.  

  • Spatial transitions: Instantly move users between different locations within the virtual world. This can be disorienting if used poorly, but it can dramatically shift the tone or heighten a sense of urgency when done well. 

  • Temporal transitions: Move the user through time within the narrative, such as through flashbacks or glimpses into the future. This technique adds depth to the story and you can use it to suspense or reveal key information. 

  • Diverse perspectives: Allow users to experience the VR narrative from different points of view.  

Design Meaningful Interactions

Interactions form the heart of VR experiences. They affect users' emotions. Create interactions that align with your emotional objectives. Implement intuitive inputs like hand gestures, voice commands or eye tracking to deepen connection and immersion. Offer feedback and rewards that affirm users' decisions. Introduce challenges and conflicts to engage and excite users and incorporate surprises to pique curiosity and intrigue. 

Test and Iterate 

Don't just guess if your VR experience hits the right emotional notes. Testing with real users gives you proof: 

  • Watch and listen: Pay close attention to facial expressions, body language and what users say in the testing phase. This gives you clues about how they feel. 

  • Use measurement tools: Tools like Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM) or the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) let users rate their emotions on a scale. This gives you clear data to track the emotional impact of your VR experience. 

Storytelling, improv and imagineering help you create immersive VR experiences that engage users, spark creativity and push the boundaries of what's possible.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

4. Design Interfaces and Interactions in VR 

VR design interfaces help users to navigate and interact with virtual worlds. Controls need to feel natural, whether through hand gestures, eye tracking or voice commands. Integrate technologies like smart devices or real-world data into the VR experience to add another layer of interaction and realism. In this section, we'll discuss about VR interfaces and their interactions.  

Key VR Interaction Concepts  

VR Interaction focuses on user engagement and immersion within virtual environments. Here are some essential concepts in VR interaction design: 

  • Autonomy and agency: VR is all about giving users control. They should be able to explore the virtual world freely and interact with objects as they would in real life. This sense of freedom and choice enhances the experience. 

  • Avatars: Avatars are the virtual bodies users inhabit in VR. When users can design and control their avatars, the experience becomes more personal and powerful.  

  • Empathy: You can use VR to build empathy, especially when users can experience life from another point of view. However, VR is best at triggering emotional empathy. You may require active user involvement to encourage deeper cognitive empathy.  

  • Motion sickness: VR motion sickness happens when what you see conflicts with your body's feelings. Good VR design avoids sudden or jarring movement and helps users maintain balance within the virtual world to minimize discomfort. 

  • Haptics and pseudo-haptics: Haptics means you use touch feedback (like vibrations in controllers) to make virtual interactions feel more real. Even without fancy hardware, clever VR design creates "pseudo-haptics" that trick your brain into feeling things that aren't physically there. 

  • Redirected walking: Redirected walking is a clever technique that lets users explore virtual spaces larger than their real-world room. They guide the user's movement in the real world to change their path in the virtual one without them noticing.  

Create an Effective Interaction Model in VR 

Think of a VR interaction model as a rulebook for how you play in a virtual world. It explains how to grab virtual objects, move around the space and use controllers, hand gestures or even gaze to control the experience. Here's a structured approach that will help you develop an interaction model in VR: 

  • Define objectives and user needs: Identify what you want to achieve with your VR application and who your users are. Understand the context in which users will use the VR system, the tasks they will perform and any limitations they might have. 

  • Research and inspiration: Look into existing VR applications, especially those that share similarities with your project. Analyze how they handle user interactions and what you can learn from them. Also, consider how non-VR applications manage interaction and whether you can adapt any elements.  

  • Select interaction methods: Choose how users will interact with the VR environment. Common interaction methods include: 

  • Gesture-based: Wave your hands or make specific gestures that the VR system can track. 

  • Gaze-based: Look at something to select it or make it do something. 

  • Voice-based: Use your voice to command or control things in the VR world. 

  • Haptic-based: Get feedback, like vibrations, that make it feel like you're touching things in the virtual world. 

5. Prototype and Test Your VR Design

A prototype for virtual reality (VR) helps you transform ideas into tangible, interactive experiences. In this process, you create models of your VR environment that you can test and refine based on user feedback. 

Follow the Prototyping Process 

Use the prototyping process to explore and validate concepts before you opt for full-scale development. 

  1. Start with simple prototypes: Build basic models of your VR idea. Focus on how the user will interact with the world, not fancy visuals. Sketching tools or basic 3D modeling programs are great for this.  

  1. Get user feedback early: Have people test your early prototypes. Watch how they try to interact and ask what they think. This helps you fix problems and make the experience easier. 

  1. Build detailed prototypes: Once the basics work, create polished prototypes with better graphics and more immersive features. Use tools like Unity or Unreal Engine to bring your world to life. 

  1. Test and improve: Test your detailed prototypes with users. Use their feedback to improve the experience, make it easier to use and keep users engaged. 

Use VR Design Best Practices

VR design best practices help you create a smooth, comfortable and intuitive user experience. Follow these guidelines to make your VR app feel natural when used on the target hardware. 

  • Use Level of Detail (LOD) and occlusion culling: Reduce the workload on your VR system. Level of Detail (LOD) means you use simpler models for far-away objects. Occlusion culling skips rendering anything hidden behind walls or other objects. 

  • Optimize shaders and textures: Shaders make your materials look right and textures add detail. Use simple shaders whenever possible and compress your textures to save memory.  

  • Test and profile regularly: Test your VR app on target devices. Profiling tools give detailed reports on frame rate, CPU/GPU usage and more. This helps you find the exact bottlenecks to fix. 

  • Follow platform-specific best practices: Each VR platform (like Oculus and SteamVR) has its guidelines. Follow these to make sure your app works smoothly and feels natural to users of that specific system. 

Evaluate your VR Design

It's not a simple question of whether the user likes or dislikes the experiences when you evaluate your VR design. You need a structured approach to understand what works and what doesn't. Consider these key areas when you analyze a VR design: 

  • Presence and immersion: Does the experience make users feel like they're there? Is the virtual world believable and engaging enough to keep them focused? 

  • Comfort: VR should be enjoyable, not nausea-inducing. Does the design minimize motion sickness? Are controls natural and easy to use without physical strain? 

  • Interaction: How do users interact with the virtual world? Is it intuitive? Do the controls feel like a natural extension or create a barrier between them and the experience? 

  • Accessibility: Can users with varied abilities enjoy the experience? Are there options to adjust settings and adapt the experience to individual needs? 

The Take Away 

VR UX design demands a fundamental shift in how we think about user experience. You must create immersive worlds where interactions feel natural, movement minimizes discomfort and the design considers the unique needs of all users. Your success in VR hinges on how you prioritize comfort and intuitive interactions.  

The IxDF UX Design for Virtual Reality course will provide deeper insights into what we discussed in this piece. This course gives you the skills to design amazing VR experiences. You'll learn how VR works, how to adapt UX principles for this unique medium and how to design for comfort and immersion. You'll master user research for VR, create powerful narratives and understand how to make VR experiences accessible to everyone. 
 
This course is ideal for you if you are:  

  • A designer wanting to expand their skillset into VR 

  • An entrepreneur looking to create VR products 

  • A product manager who wants to improve user experience with VR 

  • Anyone excited to explore the cutting edge of design 

Frank Spillers, CEO of Experience Dynamics, will be your instructor.  Frank is a VR/AR expert with over 20 years of UX experience working with Fortune 500 clients, including Nike, Intel, Microsoft, HP and Capital One. 

The IxDF UX Design for Virtual Reality course also includes hands-on exercises to build your VR design skills and portfolio.  By the end, you'll have a complete case study project ready to impress potential employers or clients. 

References and Where to Learn More 

Enroll in the IxDF UX Design for Virtual Reality course. It's included in an IxDF membership. To become a member, sign up here

Read our topic definition of Virtual Reality.  

Look at companies that lead the VR industry:  Oculus, HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR. 

Have a look at the Past, Present and Future of Virtual Reality

Take the Master Class on Rapid Prototyping for Virtual Reality to understand the conventions, frameworks, tools and techniques to conceptualize, design, prototype, test and iterate Virtual Reality applications. 

Read our article, Enter the World of Social VR

Read our article to learn how to implement VR experiences

Learn how tools like Unity or Unreal Engine can bring your world to life. 
Understand how to work on VR platforms like Oculus and SteamVR

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