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Designing for Augmented Reality - Part 1

Augmented reality designs are very different from flat screen displays. For one, the worst that may happen in a poor flat screen design is a user lost in some inner website screen. A problem they can always navigate their way out of using the X on their browser window.

In augmented reality systems, on the other hand, we need to worry about our customers being hit by a bus, or accidentally walking off a cliff. Our users are walking, jumping, and moving around, rather than sitting comfortably in front of their screens.

It is this interaction with the real wold which makes augmented reality designs require an entirely different sense of what is important, rather than just aiming for more engagement. When designing for augmented reality systems, the main focus is no longer to convince users to push a certain button, but to physically walk into a shop or slow down their car.

For this first part of our AR series, we will be asking the most basic questions that every augmented reality designer must ask. In part 2 we will dig further into actual design best practices and pitfalls.

Do you really need it?

It's funny how seldom designers ask themselves that question. Does this product actually benefit from AR, or is it just a gimmick?

The world of AR games is full of these examples. Imagine one of the many augmented reality chess type games out there. Since AR tech is not yet able to allow two players to view the same virtual object in the same room, virtual chess players are relegated to playing a computer opponent.

So, as a novelty, it's cool to play augmented chess once, and view the pieces move and kill each other in 3D. Once the novelty has warn off, however, it's just an online chess game that you have to print out a QR code to play. To say nothing of holding the damn phone up all that time.

The augmented reality element must enhance the user's experience beyond the novelty of AR itself. The added value of AR is not always obvious, especially in the gaming world. Imagine, instead of chess, we designed an Angry Birds sort of game, where players must knock down a tower from a distance, using projectiles. In this sort of game, we would design different structural elements on each side of the tower, so that the user would need to walk around it to find a weak spot. Something they couldn't really do in a flat screen game.

What are they paying attention to?

Augmented reality users navigate the real world as they interact with our products. Anyone who has found him/herself hugging a sign post pole because they were texting and walking, would know: the real world is dangerous and requires our attention.

As behavioral designers, the mobile market has conditioned us to seek attention at all times. To push a notification with a hook that might get the user to spend a few more minutes engaging with our product. In augmented reality, we need far more respect for our customer's attention.

Orr Innovation was recently commissioned to design an augmented reality motorcycle helmet. A way for motorcyclists to see their GPS map more intuitively, as well as get a better mirror view of cars coming in behind them.

It quickly became apparent how carefully such a design had to be constructed. We could not have elements move in any direction, for fear of accidentally tricking the driver's brain that a car was coming in from the side. We had to take into account the different ways motorcyclists move their head to make sure the mirror display won't be disorientating. And the list goes on.

A mistake with any of these elements would have real, life and death consequences for our drivers. In this case, and many others, the AR tech must take up as little of the user's attention as possible.

Pokemoning off a bridge

When designing for augmented reality, we must take into account more than just the interface and flow. We must rely on a whole set of other technologies that might go wrong. While a tech failure on a flat screen display would simply have an error message pop up on the screen, in the real world alerts become warnings.

The Pokemon Go people created a massive AR craze that had gamers running from place to place, trying to find their Pokemon. For this to work, there had to be a algorithm spawning Pokemon around the map for gamers to find.

How would this algorithm know where to spawn these virtual creatures? Would it only place them in parks and open spaces? Could it take height into account? Could a Pokemon spawn off the 40th floor of a skyscraper?

A small mistake in one supporting AR technology, might have people accidentally fall off a bridge trying to catch a creature floating a little too high off the ground. It could spawn in the middle of a lake, house, or major intersection. And when this inevitably happens, the interface design must be there to notice the mistake and warn the user of the danger.

To sum up

Before designing an augmented reality system, we must know the dangers. This is not a job for the office UX person. Augmented reality requires behavioral designers. Those who know, not only what motivates users, but exactly what chemicals are being released in their brain as they use their products.

AR interface design is neuroscience. It's practical psychology and behavioral economics. It is real, it has consequences, and must be treated with respect.

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