Agency in Extended Reality (XR)

Your constantly-updated definition of Agency in Extended Reality (XR) and collection of videos and articles
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What is Agency in Extended Reality (XR)?

Agency refers to a user's perceived ability to influence and control elements within a virtual or digital experience. It’s the sense of having an impact on the digital space through one's actions, decisions, and interactions. In essence, agency is about the user's perception of being an active participant rather than a passive observer.

In virtual reality (VR), agency is crucial for more immersive and engaging experiences. Users feel agency when they can interact with virtual objects, navigate through the environment, and influence the progression of the experience. 

In broader digital contexts and other immersive media, agency extends to the user's control over the interface, functionalities, and outcomes of the software or application.

In this video, UX Design Consultant Frank Spillers, explains what agency means in VR.

Why Is Agency Important?

Agency is directly related to a user’s engagement of a virtual experience. When designers give users a certain degree of control over their experiences, they enhance user engagement with the product. Users gain a sense of ownership so their interactions feel more significant.

Agency also brings greater user satisfaction. Users are not just passive observers but have an active role in shaping their experiences. They can customize their interactions based on personal preferences, which makes the whole experience more individualized and enjoyable. Personalized experiences increase satisfaction and users are more likely to recommend products to others when they are highly satisfied—personalization will increase a product's reach and bolsters its credibility. 

In addition, agency fosters a deeper relationship between users and the digital product. When users can influence outcomes and the digital environment reacts to their choices, they’re more likely to feel valued. This draws them back to the product, which then promotes loyalty and retention.

Agency in VR is an ongoing process—it requires careful design, user feedback, and technical implementation. If user interaction is prioritized, interactivity, and user empowerment, you can create VR experiences that make your users feel like active participants in a virtual world.

How to Design for Agency

Designers can use several methods to increase agency in their products.

User Interaction

Ensure that users can interact with the VR environment with natural and intuitive input devices, such as motion controllers, hand gestures, or even voice commands. Responsive input is crucial for users to feel agency. For example, the hand-tracking in Oculus Quest 2 allows users to interact with the VR environment with their hands, which makes the experience more intuitive and natural.

A man wearing a VR headset is looking at his hands. In front of him is a screen which shows what he's seeing inside the headset.

Hand tracking enhances agency by providing users with a more intuitive and direct way of interacting with the digital environment.

Realistic Physics and Feedback

Physics-based interactions can also make the virtual world feel more natural. Objects should behave as expected when touched, pushed, or manipulated—that will provide a sense of agency.

Incorporate haptic feedback devices into the VR hardware to simulate the sensation of touch and contact to enhance the user's sense of agency. For instance, in the VR game Half-Life: Alyx uses physics-based interactions, where objects behave realistically when manipulated. This, coupled with the haptic feedback from the VR controllers, creates a more immersive experience.

Freedom of Movement

Designers can provide various locomotion methods to suit users' preferences and comfort levels, such as teleportation, smooth walking, or room-scale movement. Some users may prefer to move freely, while others may experience discomfort with certain locomotion methods. For example, the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR offers various locomotion options, including teleportation and smooth walking, catering to different comfort levels of players.

Interactivity

Designers should create VR scenes with objects that users can interact with. Allow users to pick up, manipulate, and interact with virtual objects in meaningful ways to give them a sense of control. For example designers can introduce dynamic elements and systems in the VR environment, like switches, levers, buttons, and puzzles. In Beat Saber, players interact with the environment by slicing through blocks with lightsabers—a perfect example of how interactive elements can enhance agency.

A screenshot from the VR game, Beat Saber. It's from a first person point of view and shows two light sabers, one red one blue and then many other lights in the surrounding environment.

Beat Saber is a highly interactive VR game. This level of interactivity enhances agency.

© Beat Saber, Fair Use

Storytelling and Narration

Designers can create narratives that adapt to your user's choices and actions, and allow them to influence the storyline. This gives users a sense of agency as their choices shape the plot of the experience. This way, they can also ensure that users' decisions have meaningful consequences within the VR experience. This will reinforce the feeling of agency. For example, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is a first-person VR game that allows players to make choices that affect the storyline—watch some of the gameplay in this video.

User Empowerment

Designers can allow users to acquire and improve skills or abilities within the VR environment to make them feel more empowered and in control. They can also include challenges or objectives that users can complete to earn rewards or progress in the experience, giving them a sense of achievement and agency. For example, Superhot VR empowers players by allowing them to control time with their movements, which provides a unique sense of control and skill development.

User Feedback

Designers must make sure that users receive clear feedback about their actions and the consequences of those actions. Visual, auditory, and haptic feedback can help users understand their agency within the virtual world. For instance, in Job Simulator, players receive immediate visual and auditory feedback on their actions, which helps them understand their impact on the virtual world.

User Comfort

Discomfort can diminish a user's sense of agency. Designers should prioritize comfort and address motion sickness (also known as cybersickness) and discomfort issues.  They can implement comfort options and educate users on best practices for avoiding discomfort.  For example, Sony's PSVR incorporates a comfortable VR headset design and provides options to minimize motion sickness.

Playtesting and Iteration

Iterative design is essential to refine the sense of agency and improve the overall user experience. For example, the development of Bonework involved extensive playtesting, which lead to iterative improvements that enhanced the sense of agency in its physics-based VR world.

Immersive Audio and Visuals

Immersive or spatial audio and realistic visuals can enhance the feeling of presence and agency in VR. Designers should pay attention to audio cues and visual details to make the virtual world feel more convincing. For example, Moss' combines immersive audio with detailed visuals that creates a convincing and engaging VR environment.

How Agency Improves User Experience

Empowerment Through Informed Choices

When users feel empowered and are allowed to make their own decisions, they are more likely to have a satisfying experience. Through their decision-making, users learn the impact and consequences of their actions. So users are not just in control, but also feel competent in their decisions.

Interactive Elements Enhance User Engagement

Beyond the impact of actions, interactive elements that respond to user input fuel engagement. This could include dynamic content that changes based on user choices or adaptive challenges that evolve with user interaction.

Proactive Problem-Solving and Reduced Frustration

Agency in design doesn't just reduce frustration; it actively encourages users to engage in problem-solving. When users understand how their actions affect the interface, they're more likely to experiment and find solutions, which leads to a sense of accomplishment.

Customization and Personalization as a Learning Tool

Customization goes beyond personal preferences—it's also a learning tool. As users adjust settings and customize their experience, they gain a deeper understanding of the system's capabilities, which can lead to more sophisticated use and higher satisfaction.

Empirical Learning and Mastery

The journey from exploration to mastery is an empirical process. As users experiment with different features and see the results of their actions, they learn through trial and error, which can be a highly effective learning method.

Co-creation and Ownership

Agency can transform users from passive recipients to co-creators of the digital experience. This sense of co-creation fosters a stronger emotional bond with the product, as users see their input and preferences reflected in the experience.

Feedback Loops and Predictive Responsiveness

Feedback loops where user actions inform future interactions can greatly enhance agency. Predictive responsiveness, where the system anticipates user needs based on previous interactions, can make the experience feel more intuitive and tailored.

Motivation through Challenge and Reward

Enhancing agency in digital environments can also involve introducing challenges that are closely aligned with users' goals. As users overcome these challenges, they experience a sense of achievement, which is a powerful motivator and enhances overall satisfaction.

Learn More About Agency

Learn more about agency and how to create VR experiences with UX design in our course, UX Design for Virtual Reality.

This blog article, “Presence or Agency: What’s the Key to Virtual Engagement?” discusses the role of agency and presence for engagement in VR.

Discover other key elements of VR in these pieces, What is Immersion and What is Presence.

Questions about Agency

What are the best practices for designing for agency in VR?

Prioritize user autonomy and create environments where users' decisions meaningfully impact their experience. This can be achieved through interactive objects, branching narratives, and customizable avatars. Designers should create environments with multiple interaction points where each choice has a clear and immediate effect. An example is Half-Life: Alyx, where players' choices in object handling and navigation significantly affect outcomes.


Learn more about agency and other key elements of VR experiences in our course, UX Design for Virtual Reality.

How can designers balance user control and narrative in VR experiences?

Achieving a balance between user control and narrative in VR requires a compelling story that guides users while allowing freedom to explore. Designers should subtly direct users and use narrative cues and environmental storytelling to employ environmental clues and non-intrusive narrative elements to suggest paths or actions.

Learn more about agency and storytelling in our course UX Design for Virtual Reality and our article, How to Use Narrative as a Design Tool.

Which are some of the most influential, books in the field of agency or VR or XR in general?
  1. The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality by Jason Jerald

    Jerald, J. (2015). The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality. Morgan Claypool Publishers.

    This book offers a comprehensive exploration of human-centered design in virtual reality. It addresses the complexities of VR design, emphasizing the importance of understanding human perception, interaction, design principles, and real user needs. It is written for a diverse audience, including VR designers, managers, programmers, artists, psychologists, engineers, students, educators, and user experience professionals, highlighting the multifaceted approach to creating effective VR experiences. The book has been widely recognized for its thorough coverage of user interface dynamics in VR.

  2. UX for XR: User Experience Design and Strategies for Immersive Technologies by Cornel Hillmann

    Hillmann, C. (2021). UX for XR: User Experience Design and Strategies for Immersive Technologies. Apress.

    This book explores the challenges and opportunities of designing for extended reality (XR), including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). The book reviews established UX practices, case studies from industry leaders, and examines how spatial interaction is revolutionizing human-computer interaction. It offers insights into designing for experiential state and spatial cognition, emphasizing the importance of spaces, senses, and storyboarding in creating emotion-rich user experiences. This resource is valuable for understanding the intersection of UX design and the growth of immersive technologies.

What role does interactivity play in creating agency in VR?

Interactivity is crucial for agency in VR as it enables users to actively engage with the environment, make choices, and influence outcomes. Designers should create interactive elements that are intuitive and rewarding to enhance this sense of agency.


Learn more about agency and interaction design in our course, UX Design for Virtual Reality.

How does agency in VR differ from traditional gaming or web experiences?

VR offers a more immersive and embodied form of agency compared to traditional gaming or web experiences, allowing for physical interaction and enhancing the sense of presence. VR's ability to simulate real-world physics contributes significantly to this enhanced experience.


Learn more about embodiment in VR in this Master Class, How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives.

What are common challenges in designing for agency in VR?

Challenges include the balance of narrative control, the management of user expectations, and how to ensure intuitive interactions. Designers must ensure that user choices are meaningful and that the VR environment responds logically to these choices.


Learn more about agency and how to design for it in our course, UX Design for Virtual Reality.

How can VR designers measure the effectiveness of agency?

To measure the effectiveness of agency in VR, designers should use user feedback, behavioral analysis, and engagement metrics that focus on how users interact with the environment and the decisions they make.


This academic paper, Virtual skills training: the role of presence and agency, discusses how to measure agency.

What are the psychological effects of agency in VR on users?

Enhanced agency in VR can lead to increased immersion, satisfaction, and emotional impact, as users feel more control and impact on their environment, making the experience more engaging and memorable.

Learn more about agency and other key elements of VR experiences in our course, UX Design for Virtual Reality

How can VR agency be used for educational purposes?

Agency in VR can significantly enhance learning by providing interactive, experiential learning environments, allowing students to learn by doing, making decisions, and observing the outcomes in a controlled, safe environment.

Learn more about experiential learning in this article, The Future of Education is in Experiential Learning and VR

What impact does agency have on immersion in VR?

Agency significantly enhances immersion in VR, making experiences more engaging and realistic, as users feel in control and their actions have tangible consequences in the VR world.


Learn more about immersion in Extended Reality (XR) in this piece, What is Immersion.

How can designers ensure agency without overwhelming users in VR?

To ensure agency in VR without overwhelming users, designers need to provide clear guidance and intuitive design that ensures the environment offers choices without being overly complex or confusing.


Learn more about agency and other key elements of VR experiences in our course, UX Design for Virtual Reality

What are innovative examples of agency in VR applications?

Innovative examples of agency in VR include games like Boneworks and educational tools like The Body VR, which provide users with meaningful choices and realistic interactions, showcasing the potential of agency in VR applications.

Learn more about agency and other key elements of VR experiences in our course, UX Design for Virtual Reality.

How does user feedback influence agency in VR design?

User feedback refines and enhances the sense of agency in VR design. It helps to identify areas where user expectations are not met and guide improvements in the VR experience.


Learn more about user feedback in VR in this article, How do you incorporate user feedback and co-design in VR development?

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Literature on Agency in Extended Reality (XR)

Here’s the entire UX literature on Agency in Extended Reality (XR) by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Agency in Extended Reality (XR)

Take a deep dive into Agency in Extended Reality (XR) with our course UX Design for Virtual Reality .

Virtual reality is a multidimensional universe that invites you to bring stories to life, transform digital interactions, educate with impact and create user-centric and unforgettable experiences. This course equips you with the skills and knowledge to embrace the possibilities and navigate the challenges of virtual reality.

UX Design for Virtual Reality is taught by UX expert Frank Spillers, CEO and founder of the renowned UX consultancy Experience Dynamics. Frank is an expert in the field of VR and AR, and has 22 years of UX experience with Fortune 500 clients including Nike, Intel, Microsoft, HP, and Capital One.

In UX Design for Virtual Reality, you’ll learn how to create your own successful VR experience through UX design. Informed by technological developments, UX design principles and VR best practices, explore the entire VR design process, from concept to implementation. Apply your newfound skills and knowledge immediately though practical and enjoyable exercises.  

In lesson 1, you’ll immerse yourself in the origins and future potential of VR and you’ll learn how the core principles of UX design apply to VR. 

In lesson 2, you’ll learn about user research methods, custom-tailored for the intricacies of VR.

In lesson 3, you’ll investigate immersion and presence and explore narrative, motion and sounds as design tools. 

In lesson 4, you’ll delve into interface and interaction design to create your own user-friendly, compelling and comfortable VR experiences.

In lesson 5, you’ll gain insights into prototyping, testing, implementing VR experiences, and conducting thorough evaluations.

After each lesson you’ll have the chance to put what you’ve learned into practice with a practical portfolio exercise. Once you’ve completed the course, you’ll have a case study to add to your UX portfolio. This case study will be pivotal in your transition from 2D designer to 3D designer. 

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