Developer Perspective: Designing for Humans
Oculus Developer Blog
Posted by Doug North Cook
November 20, 2018

Doug North Cook is developing one of the world’s first immersive media degree programs at Chatham University where he is an assistant professor. He spends his summers at the Fallingwater Institute running week-long design residencies for architects and immersive design professionals at Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic home. One of his latest VR experiences, Writing the End, a short experimental narrative piece made with artist Liz Edwards is out now on Rift and Go. Doug and Liz’s upcoming narrative work is focused on voice interaction and leverages VR creative tools to their maximum potential.

When attempting to find a method for approaching immersive design I found so many that didn’t work. I struggled through my own failures and successes in prototypes, in released projects, and through teaching courses to students with no background in VR. After learning from failure and difficulty, I have arrived at some guiding principles for immersive design, held loosely, but consulted often. The idea I am often drawn back to is this: designing experiences for immersive platforms is most akin to designing real-world experiences. Designing for virtual realities means learning how to design for reality. Let’s break this idea down into two categories and introduce two of the voices that ring constantly in my head.

First: Architecture.

The building blocks of both immersive design and architecture are fixed in the effort of creating space. The products of architecture—think corporate buildings designed for long work hours, or sprawling McMansions—can often be dehumanizing. If you spend any time talking to people outside of the immersive design world you will hear the same fears about technology. There are real fears that immersive platforms will cause people to become isolated, sedentary, and lost in virtual unreality. These fears are a reminder of the power that creating space, either physical or virtual, can have a profound impact on those in it.

If you have spent time in any of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings you know the incredible effect his designs have on the visitor’s sense of self, emotions, and desire for movement. Teaching design residency programs at his iconic Fallingwater has embedded in me a deep appreciation for his approach to humanizing space. His approach to what he calls “organic design” has become a guide for me. Wright describes his approach to bringing human scale and machine methods together:

Image courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

“What now is organic "design"? Design appropriate to modern tools, the machine, and this new human scale. Thus, design was opportune, and well within the architect's creative hand if his mind was receptive to these relatively new values: moving perception at this time with reverential spirit toward the understanding of the "nature of nature." The nature of the machine, studied by experiment and basically used in structural design, was still to be limited to a tool, and proved to be a powerful new medium of expression… Never did I allow the machine to become "motif—always machine for man and never man for the machine. ”

Wright says that he came to this understanding in 1893. This idea that design should be at a human scale, in accordance with the capabilities of the machine and materials is still revolutionary. The human scale he writes about is new, and we also have a new human scale. It demands a progressive movement that sees the scale unfixed and rapidly changing. As soon as we feel at peace with our approach to building we should feel unsettled because the scale has most likely shifted already.

Image courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

Designing for immersive platforms is a challenge of keeping pace with the changes in technology and software while also building empathy with users. If we are to design for our new human scale we’ll need some more tools.

Second: Product Design.

Don Norman’s book “The Design of Everyday Things” proposes a detailed method for approaching human-centered design that transcends his own field (find more of his writing, and some great essays, here: ). He is famous for his critiques of poorly designed doors that don’t give the user insight into how they should be opened. Here is a brief overview of his seven design principles as applied to a VR-specific example. If you haven’t tried any of the experiences listed I recommend you give them a try and think about how these ideas are present.

  1. Discoverability - The user can easily determine what actions are possible and what the current state of the object is. Squanch Games VR madhouse “Accounting” is a great example of a world that is full of easily discoverable objects that encourage the user to play. Objects demand that the user throw, smash, and listen.
  2. Feedback - The user is provided information about the outcome of actions and the current state of the object. Without feedback, users can be frustrated, confused, and lost. Without the chaperone boundaries provided in most VR platforms even more people would run into walls.
  3. Conceptual Model - The design provides all information necessary to create a good conceptual model of the design. Think about designing for what is true or for verisimilitude - what feels true. This is one of the things that VR excels at. There is an incredible opportunity to invite users to abandon their mental models for operating in their world and try on a new model. A new model can be used for play, empathy building, and training in a new environment. SUPERHOT VR is one of the only VR experiences that is capable of providing the user a compelling and effective conceptual model for an alternate understanding of time.
  4. Affordances and Perceived Affordances - These include all possible actions that can be performed by, on, or with an object. Designers are concerned with what actions a user perceives are possible in order to encourage the desired action. If you have spent any time playing Job Simulator, or talking to anyone from Owlchemy Labs, you will have an appreciation for their world-class affordance design. Think about how the user will want to interact with every object. Also, don’t just think about. Get users into your experience early to see how they try to interact with UI, objects, movement, and other users and take notes.
  5. Signifiers - A signifier is any labeling, direction, or instruction that ensures discovery of the proper affordance. The less intuitive a design, the more signifiers it needs. Sometimes an experience needs signifiers because the level of complexity of the task exceeds the natural affordances of the experience. VR 3d modeling tools like Oculus Medium take their cues from traditional 3d programs to show the user familiar signifiers for mirroring, 3d orientation, and the creation of menu systems. Just remember that if you have to signify something it should be important.
  6. Mappings - The relationship between controls and their actions are intuitive, natural, and take into account the above-mentioned principles. This can be illustrated on the simple end by something like Beat Saber, which uses only natural movement a single button for menu navigation, and on the complex side by Google Blocks where you see a full representation of the controller with mappings made clear.
  7. Constraints - The designer must understand the inherent constraints and also how to design additional constraints to aid the user. “I Expect You To Die” from Schell Games, demonstrates a mature awareness of how to lean into constraints, using single environments and no locomotion, while still delighting the user.

This is just the beginning of what human-centered design practices can provide to us in the way of theory and structure. It can help provide a structure for thinking deeply about designing for our new human scale.

Last: Immersive Design

We can look to other design disciplines that have deep roots and traditions to help ground our work. This must still be done in the spirit of experimentation, prototyping, and innovation. There is an incredible opportunity to address the legitimate concerns surrounding the capacity that immersive technology has, when used or designed poorly, to make us less than we are. We can create experiences that empower and humanize us in ways that other technologies do not. We can define a new human scale that is fixed to the expansiveness of immersive platforms.

What does this mean in practice? Here’s a few ideas:

  1. Build your next prototype using Norman’s design principles as a checklist. See how this might change your process.
  2. Find books, articles, lectures, mentors, and other resources from fields that can provide insight to your work. For me that has meant surrounding myself with architects, typography designers, psychologists, UX designers from various fields, and others.
  3. Define your user before you start designing. If you design projects with yourself in mind your scale is most likely tipped in the wrong direction. Do expect users to have a full room-scale setup? Are your users all the same height? Do any of your users have accessibility issues you might need to consider? When you do the work to research and define your users at the start you don’t have to go back and force a fit at the end.
  4. Dedicate as much time as you can to early, and regular, user testing. Make sure you design testing questionnaires and parameters that get you both the hard and soft data you need.
  5. Put yourself in your users shoes as often as you can. Lower the camera height, restrict your movement, use a minimum specification PC, turn the audio down to very low levels, etc.
  6. Send me your ideas! What has worked for you? What has gotten you stuck? I’d love to know.

You can find Doug on twitter @dougnorthcook , and on Oculus as dougnorthcook or via email at