UX in virtual worlds

With Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR) and Virtual Reality (VR), brands have new, powerful tools to create exceptional brand and product experiences for their customers. Imagination knows no limits. But whether you ultimately thrill or disappoint customers depends on the user experience.

What is user experience?

The term "user experience" (UX) stands for the entire experience a user has with a product. Not only does it refer to the functionality and usability of the product, but also the emotional value. Does users enjoy using the product? Do they find the design to be pleasant? Do they trust the product when using it? In other words, it's both objective and subjective impressions that determine whether a product will be accepted by users and will ultimately be successful.

The UX Success Factor

Most product manufacturers and developers can sing a song about how important the user experience is. A product can be so innovative, useful or inexpensive – if it's complicated to handle or for some reason does not meet the taste of the target audience, it will have a hard time establishing itself.
A good example of this are apps. Only a fraction of the 2.6 million apps currently available in Apple's App Store and Google Play Store have been downloaded. Even fewer are actively used and very few are successful in the long term. It's clear why if you look at typical user behavior. Anyone who looks for an app on a particular topic, is usually faced with a huge selection. The decision then usually falls on an application that offers the desired features, visually makes a good impression and has good ratings. However, if the app does not meet user expectations when used, it will quickly end up lying around on the smartphone or getting deleted.
The UX factor is therefore often taken into account in the development phase of products. The goal is to use UX design to meet the needs, expectations and tastes of potential users from the outset. But since target groups are different and psychology and trends also play a role, this is easier said than done. While there are standards for usability such as ISO 9241, emotional reactions are not always predictable. The best way to optimize UX, therefore, are repeated tests with subjects.

A wide field: Virtual UX

UX optimization is even more difficult for virtual content. Virtual realities are a relatively new field and yet they have no universal UX standards. Here, trying things out often comes before studying them. Depending on the technology used, there are also different challenges. However, there are some aspects that are relevant to the user experience in every virtual application:

The basic ingredient for good UX in Extended Realities (XR) is consistency. It means that all elements of a virtual application match each other and the context. Only if everything results in a coherent, consistent and holistic approach can the user immerse themselves in the virtual experience and feel that it's "real" – this effect is also called immersion.

The following points affect the coherence of virtual experiences:

-    Unified Design: The user perceives similarly designed elements as belonging together. Deviations in the design style can be legitimate if certain content is to be highlighted.

-    Virtual Context: The virtual elements of an application should be fitting for content and go visually with the thematic framework. Ideally, the theme of the experience is instantly recognizable to the user. This is particularly important for VR applications, since here the experience space is self-contained or disconnected from reality. If the context is not clear, it will be difficult for users to orient themselves in the virtual world.

-    Real Context: AR content is also in a real context because it's projected into real environments. The better they fit in and refer to it, the more authentic they are. An AR city guide who walks through walls or confuses sights, for example, would not be very credible.

-    Content Structure: The order in which users experience the virtual content of an experience determines whether they see it as coherent. It also plays a role in how the transitions are designed and how much the individual components are based on each other. Storytelling can also create a narrative thread that guides users through the experience.

-    Unified Interaction Opportunities: One benefit of XR experiences is that user can become an actors. For this, they need to know the interaction possibilities or act as intuitively as possible. It's important that over the course of an experience, the same commands and action elements always allow the same actions. For example, if a swipe to the right changes the color of one object and another starts a new chapter, it can quickly cause confusion.

Focus and attention
A typical challenge in VR and MR applications is to draw the users' attention to the core content of the experiences. It should be clear that they don't concentrate on incidental matters, while the most important thing happens on the margins of users perception or outside of their view. One of the tricks to help focus on the desired content is to include acoustic signals and movement and animation effects. A virtual experience guide, which assists the user, also helps.

In Mixed Reality, the problem can also be solved in such a way that the content remains anchored in the user's field of vision. In Augmented Reality, on the other hand, the field of vision is the smartphone screen. This is more about the question of what users should do their smartphone camera to activate the AR experience. For example, responses could provide text and voice hints.

Storytelling is not just important for consistency. Through stories, experiences with tension and emotion are created. Users are then not only more willing to get involved in the virtual events and to identify with it, they will later remember the experience better. However, including users as active participants is important in storytelling for XR. This means that storytelling also needs to consider users' ability to interact and change the story.

Another way to increase user engagement is gamification. Games motivate the user to interact with the virtual world and provide an individual experience. Game rewards such as collecting points, leaderboards, titles and the like also increase the fun factor in the UX.

The better the user can identify with virtual content, the more positive the user experience will be. Identification takes place when it can apply itself in and shape the experience. For this reason, customizing the XR experiences is beneficial. One way to do this is through interaction. By deciding what actions to take and when, the user can influence the process and content of their experience. Gamification (see above) and the option of sharing experiences with friends can also contribute to a distinctive, individual experience.

An important factor for the UX is certainly the performance of an application. The days of long computation times and low latencies are fortunately numbered. Matured technologies, 5G and growing computing power will in the future ensure that data flow will no longer falter. In the area of augmented reality, WebAR also offers a new solution for smooth experiences.

Example: The BMW X2 Holo Experience

The BMW X2 HoloExperience of SAINT ELMO'S Berlin, which was nominated in 2018 at the UX Awards shows how the combination of individual measures leads to an optimal UX. The mixed-reality application was in the context of the market launch of the BMW X2 and was intended to bring the new vehicle to life even before it was exhibited in the BMW showrooms.

As part of the launch campaign, the BMW X2 HoloExperience picks up on the stories and visual language of the TV commercials, allowing users to virtually immerse themselves in the world of the BMW X2. To ensure that the virtual elements of the application blend seamlessly into real space, SAINT ELMO'S Berlin developed a specially designed, transportable booth that formed the spatial framework for every application.

Users can act independently during the application, for example, by determining the order in which they discover the vehicle features. Playful elements that are based on the storytelling of the TV spots are also included. This way, users can drive the vehicle through the walls of an office labyrinth or immerse it in paint pools to change the exterior color. And to make the experience even more customized, they have the opportunity to place their own holographic alter ego next to the virtual car and take a selfie. They can then send it to friends or share it in social media.

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