Solving for X: Embracing the Unknown in XR UX

by James Kane, Two Bulls

At Two Bulls, we’ve been working with AR since 2009 and it still feels completely new.

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It’s quite fun exploring these unknown spaces, feeling our way into a new model of interactivity. While early adopters are well-established, XR technologies are not widely deployed in the mainstream. We usually begin an engagement without a huge amount of information on how users interact with the technology. 

So, we find ourselves with new users, an unexplored use case, a scary new piece of tech, a bunch of devs, some designers and a deadline to deliver some demonstrable value. We run with minimum viable process in tight, iterative cycles searching for a foothold in an emergent practice. Here are our stories... 

Know your user: The Weyo AR Platform 

We were charged with building a platform for AR experiences aimed at 3-5 year olds. The Weyo platform uses the front facing camera on phones/tablets to place interactive masks on the user. It’s a well-known mechanic (HT Snapchat) but there were no similar apps on the market for our target age group. So, we began a series of prototypes followed by user testing with feedback immediately folded into updated UX flow and UI elements. 

Our most crucial discovery: kids have short arms. The average arm length of a 3-5 year old is ~47cm, placing the phone closer to their faces. We built an onboarding process to assist in kids understanding how to position their face relative to the screen. It gave them an opportunity to have fun and get comfortable with the basics of the technology before launching into the full experience. 

Prototyping and user testing revealed hundreds of insights, but our key takeaway was the value of the process itself. There was no other way to understand the complex interactions of the user, the device and the onscreen experience without observing it first-hand.

Know your use case: Pediatric VR with Smileyscope 

Smileyscope was conceived to assist in calming children undergoing medical procedures, particularly injections. Before approaching us, they had already run clinical trials creating a framework for the concept. It was a unique use case that immediately imposed the stringent requirements of a clinical environment. It also limited the use of our most effective weapon: prototyping. Without prototyping we had to lean on another framework: a use case confined to a known procedure. 

We scoped out an experience in a peaceful underwater setting where looking at fish and other creatures’ triggers moments of aural and visual beauty. We arrived at 4-5 versions of a user flow and took these to clinical professionals for their feedback. Through extensive interviews we arrived at our core insight: a successful product outcome would be driven by tightly weaving the in-fantasy narrative of the VR experience to the real-world experiences of the user undergoing a medical procedure. 

For example:

  • we integrated a calming breathing technique into the onboarding process by having the user test their “underwater equipment”; 

  • we emulated the sensations of the medical procedure by having fish nibble up and down the user’s arms while the nurse swabbed the injection site etc. 

Smileyscope has subsequently been submitted for further clinical trials with outstanding results. In this instance it was a thorough analysis of the intended use case that unlocked a successful product outcome. 

Know your environment: NBN Magic Leap

In a mixed reality world, the complex interplay of users, user case, and technology is compounded by a third factor: real world environment. Building an experience for the Magic Leap required an understanding of the environment we were deploying to. We were on an exceptionally tight timeline for this project and a field trip felt like an extravagance. It wasn’t. The team’s time in the environment was the defining activity in our process.

It immersed the team in the challenge and provided a form of ethnographic research. Trying to design MR UX without understanding the physical space around it would have been like deploying UI to a screen of unknown dimensions and resolution. It greatly assisted the team in rallying around a shared understanding of outcome. It also reminded us to go fast, but not so fast that we forget the user’s context. Go there. Spend time there. It’s worth it.

Conclusion: know yourself 

Our greatest fear as we approach UX in XR is that an ad hoc approach will lead to an ad hoc outcome. But designing for XR right now is not for the timid. We start with a clear goal and then plunge into iterating prototypes. In the face of crippling ambiguity, we encourage fearless exploration. The lines blur between Engineering and Design as scrappy on-the-spot conversations are rapidly sketched out and become working features. We lean on a hackathon culture—break and make and break and make—all heading towards an overarching goal, a shared vision, coupled with a spirit of experimentation. The fidelity improves on every pass.

James Kane, Two Bulls

James Kane, Two Bulls

About the Author: James is the Founder and CEO of Two Bulls, a digital product agency with offices in Melbourne and Brooklyn. Two Bulls conceives the amazing, engineers excellence, and delivers every time. We’ve worked with the world’s largest brands to reinvent the way they do things. James is proud of his work with Two Bulls and doesn't want to mention anything else.