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Designing for Augmented Reality - Part 2

In part 1 of this series, we talked about the basics of augmented reality. How is this technology different from 2D screens, when it comes to user safety or mental load. In this installment, we will discuss a few best practices toward getting it right.

1. Don't Get in the Way

Imagine a car breaking down on the highway, in the middle of the night. The driver steps out, but knows little about fixing a car. Luckily, they can download an augmented reality app, which will guide them through the process.

Look at the hood, and the app will highlight how to open it. Look at the oil thing, and the app will tell the driver how to check the oil (I know little about cars).

But then, the oil menu blocks the driver's view of the engine, and just as the driver shakes it off, a commercial for roadside assistance pops up, screaming for attention.

An augmented design element will always block some part of reality. It is the designer's job to decide what may be blocked, and what must stay in view. Whatever you decide, all elements must be easy to remove from view, at any time.

2. It Doesn't Have to be 3D

Designers love 3D elements, but so far they haven't panned out. They may be pretty, sure, but mostly they simply add to the user's cognitive load, and distract more than they help.

There is already a building hope that augmented reality will change all of this. Finally, many think, a place where 3D can be justified. We see it in every augmented reality demo out there. It's always a beautiful mushroom, or alien in the middle of the room.

Though 3D elements will definitely take a major role in the augmented reality experience, the menus, buttons, and texts will likely remain in 2D. In the end, we want to see our text placed on top of a flat white surface, and our menus easy to reach.

No one wants a complicated menu, and the thought of asking someone to touch the mushroom to play a video or catch a fairy to exit, is terrifying.

3. But Gestures Will Always be 3D

In augmented reality, there are two possible ways to interact with the environment: device control, and gesture control. On mobile AR, for example, the world is viewed through the device's camera, but the interface remains flat on the screen.

When designing augmented reality games, for example, we (at Orr Innovation) often place the game controls in a similar configuration to a regular hand held game, only designed to reduce any obstructions to the view screen, while also preventing fingers from getting in the way.

Gesture controls are very different. They will always include a certain amount of 3D movement, even when interacting with a 2D element. Imagine interacting with a floating screen of text. Perhaps we stuck it to a wall, so as not to be disorienting. Scrolling down this document would require a hand gesture, moving up or down the document. Our hand would be the mouse icon, moving up and down the screen.

Make these gestures too large, and users might begin feeling physical fatigue, from all the hand movements. Make them too complicated, and you might add a whole new layer of mental fatigue to the mix.

4. Reducing Interaction Costs

The great thing about augmented reality is that it gives us the opportunity to greatly reduce our user's interaction costs. Information which we once had to flip between devices, will now be placed perfectly in context.

If our stranded driver once had to search for carburetor on his phone to get his information, AR can now simply recognize what the driver is looking at and automatically display any relevant information.

In much the same way, augmented reality allows us to transfer information from one context to another, effortlessly. Imagine having to remember a licence plate, or billing number. Rather than jotting it down on a phone or piece of paper, the AR system can remember it for us, reducing cognitive load substantially.

In this case, it seems a pin function is exceptionally important. Perhaps the sort of pin that allows users to save an interaction, and review it later. This will give the augmented reality option a clear advantage in day to day life, and make the interface pay off.


Augmented reality is here, and an entirely new world of interface and experience design is opening up. Unlike on flat screens, however, this interface interacts with the real world, and so can be bothersome or even dangerous.

At Orr Innovation, we design AR interfaces quite a bit. No matter how nifty our designs may get, there is one rule that's golden: At every step, ask how this step might bother or endanger the customer. Is it safe, as well as good?

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