VR/AR is not progressing quickly because we are focusing on the wrong design principles (Analysis)

Design principles behind virtual reality

Let us face it: we’ve all seen plenty of AR/VR experience that made us think, ‘Why does this exist?’ The short and gimmicky AR apps that children play for thirty seconds, before they switch to Peppa Pig on YouTube. The clunky and nauseating VR games that proclaim that they are the future of enterprise training, as employees retch in the office corner. The companies buoyed by a wave of hype before the wave crashes and employees are scattered across the coarse sands of unemployment. For all the good this industry brings – and yes, there is a lot of good– a sludge of poor-quality experiences rears their shrivel heads from time to time.

Weaker companies are standard in competitive industries. In a normal market, healthy companies rise to the top while poor-performing start-ups are sifted back to the bottom of the fast-moving river. The market mechanism has largely worked, and over the last few years we have made some great progress. Gimmicky AR is replaced with integrated AR campaigns that enhances the brand’s storytelling. VR training and education is one of the healthiest areas of immersive, fulfilling its promise of cutting costs and improving efficiency. Our progression is not quick; both CCS Insight and Omdia predict that it is a few years out from high-end adoption. But we are getting there, and weak companies still crop up.  

Why is progression so slow? Any person proposing a grand theory of failure is wrong, for a start. No overall trend can explain its slow adoption across so many disparate industries and technologies. Price is certainly a barrier for most consumer-facing VR companies – but try suggesting that to enterprise companies who have the budget, but are unwilling to commit anyway. Accessibility is solved by running AR easily on smartphones, which billions of people have in their pockets… yet so few use AR regularly, despite how easy it is to use.

I do not want to push an overall view that covers everything. An industry is far more complex than a throwaway line in an article. But I want to propose an additional factor that is plaguing many companies. Something that has become so common that it burns potential clients from adopting the technology again. I suggest that the design principles we use to design many experiences is back to front, and we are looking in the wrong places. When we design products in VR/AR, we are valuing the wrong parts of the process and leaving behind customers in the dirt.

What do you mean by design principles?

Alright, let us step back a little. What do I mean by design principles, and what does that have to do with VR/AR?

Design thinking is a human-centred ethos of constructing a product. The process is about identifying the wants and needs of customers, and designing something for that. It is not about creating a flashy product that dazzles – all sizzle, no substance. Rather, it directly services what a person wants (or did not know they want).

The classic example is Edison inventing the lightbulb. Yes, the lightbulb itself revolutionised indoor lighting – but what is the point of it cannot run on the transmission of electricity? Solo inventions by themselves do not work; Edison also identified the customer’s need of access, and developed that as well. Edison created the invention and conceived the marketplace, together. Revolutionising technologies also needed additional work to service the additional needs of potential customers.

Let us take the same principles and apply them to a lucrative part of VR: enterprise training. Projects can differ in aims and scope, but most clients are looking to improve a few elements that directly service their goals. A ‘need’ would be something they want to be serviced for their project; the ‘design approach’ covers how the ‘need’ would be addressed. Largely, enterprise companies succeed in delivering them:

NeedDesign approach
Cost efficiency. Cutting the expenses of travel time, employee training time, and using time-sensitive assets away from deployment.A VR simulation where people can learn in their own office, repeat as many times as they want, without using the real-life object as a training platform.  
Safety. Train workers in a safe environment without harming them or the asset they are training on.  A VR space that allows them to train in hazardous conditions without harming the user.
Impact. The training must have a lasting impact on the memory and performance of the workers, reducing the necessity for retraining.  Studies on VR have proven numerous times the long-term impact of training on workers. If designed correctly, the experience helps workers learn.  

The needs and design responses above are a drastic summary, but reflect the one-two approach the companies use. If a client wants X, the company responds to it with Y. Over the last few years, VR enterprise companies have been some of the healthiest companies in the industry, partially because of happy customers that see the impact of their work.

Now let’s take AR as an example, in this case an AR marketing campaign. Again, needs and desires may change depending on the client, but here are some broad strokes:

NeedDesign approach
Engagement. Have a lasting impact on a mobile user, affiliating them with the brand.A fun AR experience that takes over a minute to complete, hooking them on the app and enjoying the services it provides.  
Access. Make it as easy as possible for users to access the app, so they can jump right in.  Use technologies like WebAR where users can click on a link to run the experience via a browser, or a simple scan of a QR code.  
Click-through. Push hyper-engaged users to click through to the brand’s site and browse their products.  Give users incentives to click the links, such as coupon codes or in-store points to spend.

None of this is rocket science. Many companies have this in mind, and correctly apply the right design approach to reel customers in. But a few companies invert their priorities – and that is when the trouble begins.

Using the wrong design principles

A common issue in many businesses is that they do not understand their customers. They try to, of course – monitoring customer emails, interviewing some people, and conducting research into what they want. But some companies take a customer want, misinterpret it, and provide the wrong design.

A classic example is user experience, and what they first see when they see a company for the first time. I will use one example, and strip the company’s name and details; but bear in mind that this is a VR software provider currently operating in the industry, and this is the first thing people see when they enter the website:

INTEGRATE YOUR PORTFOLIO INTO A DISCOVERY MAP:
Heighten user experience
Generate Leads to CRM Systems
On-board your Partners
Livestream Webinars
Video Library Publisher
Book a demo

The first reaction of many browsers would be confusion. The first few seconds does not outline what they do, how they can help, and what kind of technology they provide to service the customer’s needs. The company is deep within themselves, keen to talk about what they do rather than how they can help. But most importantly, I am unsure why I would need a discovery map, or even what it is; what is the need being tackled?

If I were to re-work the website, I would step out of the company’s services and think about what the customer would want, and why they would use the VR software provider. What is the need that needs to be addressed? For the sake of argument, let us say it is to provide an online way of presenting a portfolio – an easy, clickable way to see what their portfolio includes. In which case, I would reword it as:

PROVIDE A SEAMLESS WAY TO PRESENT YOUR WORK ONLINE:
Our service allows your partners and audience to click through and see your wide portfolio of services, demonstrating your value to potential customers or clients.

Book a demo

Additional details can be added as a cascade-effect on the website, filtering information by prioritising the most important details downwards via a cascade of relevancy. Address how the need can be solved, then pen down the details with the technology and services that would be used. Because ultimately, most customers do not care how it is solved; they just want the job done. The key learnings can apply to both VR and AR.

Many companies in VR/AR present themselves in the wrong way. Companies are so preoccupied with the services they provide, and the cutting-edge technology they use, that they lose sight of what their customers may want. Clients do not necessarily want to do something because it ‘looks cool.’

Applying design thinking to projects

As I said earlier, I am not proposing that this is an issue across all companies. Design thinking is a big area, and a few companies are having issues expressing themselves. But in my view, the issue is widespread enough to stall our pick-up of new clients. On one level it is a communications issue, as potential customers are unsure what a particular VR/AR company may do or be able to help them. For others it is more fundamental, misunderstanding what their customers want and providing the wrong solution.

For example, one other fundamental issue is feeling sick in VR.  While companies are pushing how ‘revolutionising’ VR is, users are still feeling nauseous. We cannot sweep them away – how can we push a technology when there is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed? We cannot go in blindly and ignore the evident issues; the best approach to address them as much as we can.

So grab an outside, invite them behind your doors, and listen carefully to what they say. Pop your bubble, take the feedback to heart, and change aggressively. You will not regret it.

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Tom Ffiske

Editor, Virtual Perceptions

Tom Ffiske specialises in writing about VR, AR, and MR across the immersive reality industry. Tom is based in London.