Developer Perspective: Universal Design w/ Douglas North Cook
Oculus Developer Blog
Posted by Douglas North Cook
March 14, 2019

We occasionally post insights from the Oculus Developer community so that VR pioneers can share their best practices and help drive the industry forward. Today, we feature Doug North Cook, author, professor, and general VR/design SME. He will be leading a panel at this year's GDC on the topic of “How Do We Make VR for Everyone” and so we thought he would be an ideal candidate to give us an overview on Universal Design and why it is so important for VR going forward.

Designing experiences for VR is difficult, uncertain and complicated but when I first tried on an Oculus DK1 I knew right away I had to try. I know that many of you have had that experience and I also know that along the way you’ve shared that experience with others out of passion, excitement and a hope that they would see what you see. I’ve had the pleasure to see my grandfather sit among the stars and draw in 3D. I watched as my niece struggled to chop down virtual trees and laugh as her axes went flying. Seeing the two of them find joy in that first experience stuck with me. It also reminds me that not everyone’s first experience with VR is a fun, joy filled adventure. For many people their first experience might be one of frustration, fear, alienation or sickness. As I prep for a GDC panel on “How Do We Make VR for Everyone” I’ve been thinking about what it means to design experiences made by a few of us, but meant for all of us.

A Note on Universal Design:

“Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples' needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.” - Centre for Excellence in Universal Design

Universal Design comes from the world of architecture where issues of accessibility are theorized, regulated and implemented with rigorous creativity. Universal design is a reframing of the traditional concept of accessibility - providing access to those who don’t currently have it - and changes the focus to allow greater access for everyone. When you approach design from this perspective you don’t think about designing for player A and then designing an accommodation for player B - you design to accommodate the possibility that player A, B, C & D are not static entities and that their abilities will change over time.

I have a reasonable expectation that we will all change. Our eyesight, hearing, cognition, mental health, weight and more are subject to constant, and sometimes unexpected, change. When we design for a variety of users, abilities and cultures we aren’t just designing for someone else - we are designing for who we might become. Recently I was in a conversation with several people who either had recently had cataract surgery, wore bifocals, were hard of hearing or walk with a cane. They were very excited to talk more about VR after hearing a presentation of mine and their first comment was “it sounds great...but not for someone like me”. When I told them about VR experiences, hardware and developers who were actively working on including them their eyes lit up. I hope that we can show them more soon.

The Need for Diverse Content and Creators:

If we approach our design process from the lens of Universal Design we are immediately confronted with the huge range of considerations to keep in mind. Human design considerations go beyond issues of ability, extend to discussion of gender, religious and spiritual beliefs, race, culture, sexual orientation, personal values and more. These discussions become incredibly difficult to have within homogenous teams with a narrow range of experiences.

There is a need for us to find ways to support more diverse types of content so that we can learn from a wide range of designers, from various backgrounds. Sometimes empowering someone else to become involved in the design process is a better option than trying to design something for them. If you have identified a perceived need for someone from another background - go talk to them about it. Embrace interview-based, design research processes that can help you do more empathetic design to better meet the true needs of users.

The best option in all of this is to ensure that you have room on your team for diverse contributors. This work is most effectively done within a diverse team that can bring a range of experiences to bear on the creation of an immersive experience. There is no replacement for actually having representation in the room.

Why does all of this matter?

It matters because we have a responsibility as designers to help make the world better, weirder, more interesting and more inclusive. This is a responsibility that when fully embraced, it actually works and, if ignored, it can have unintended, and often harmful, consequences.

So...How do we do it?

  1. Take inspiration from those who are already doing the work. The team at Beat Games, the creators of Beat Saber, have taken huge steps to enable access and features for a wide variety of users. Just recently they announced a collaboration with Subpac to make Beat Saber accessible to the deaf community while at the same time adding a feature that non-deaf users will find delightful.
  2. Implement intentionally diverse user testing. Find a community that you would not expect to be the target audience for your title and invite them to be a part of the process. You will be surprised by what you will learn. Make sure to bring them back in once you’ve implemented any changes based on their feedback.
  3. Start thinking about a variety of users before you design anything. Empower a designer on your team to embark on user research in pre-production. I recommend using established tools and methods like the human-centered design process used by IDEO found at Their free resources will get you a few steps ahead.
  4. Try other developer's content, especially those from creators and genres that you are unfamiliar with. It is startling how often developers tell me that they haven’t tried any newly released immersive experiences in months. It’s easy to get heads down and become blind to the lessons already learned by others.
  5. Make room on your team for people that think differently. Collaborate with those that have a range of abilities, come from a variety of backgrounds and have different tastes. This must be done intentionally, thoughtfully, focusing on full-inclusion and avoiding tokenism.

Immersive technology has an incredible opportunity to reframe who and what technology is for. We have the opportunity to make something that is for everyone - something universal - that can bring us together and invite us to be more human. These technologies don’t do this work on their own. We embed our values, our biases, our forgetfulness and our ignorance into the things we build. I hope that you will join me in trying to do this right.

As noted in the intro, I will be speaking more about this with Robin Hunicke, Cy Wise, and Kat Harris at GDC during our panel “How Do You Make VR for Everyone?”, where you can get your hands on our new zine about the future of VR. See you there!

- Douglas North Cook

Thumbnail Image courtesy of Chatham University Immersive Media Department