VR Accessibility Design: App Design

Creating a more accessible application begins with designing for a wider set of user needs, while applications that are accessible by a wider audience are also naturally more satisfying to your core audience. Attributes of game design such as narrative and delivery, rules and objectives, and character interactions as well as many others contribute greatly to the accessibility of VR applications. This section will detail how various design practices and ideologies can give people with disabilities the opportunity to fully experience your application.

This document contains the following sections:

In-App Tutorials

In-app tutorials are imperative for players to learn how to interact and navigate through your application. As a developer, you can design your tutorial to be immersive, so that it feels like a natural part of the virtual world or you can build it as an independent experience where players can familiarize themselves with the application. Regardless of how you build your tutorial, the most important aspect is that it’s easily understood and usable.

Tutorial placement and access

Developers will often place a tutorial at the start of the application as a mandatory section of the app, meaning that until people complete the tutorial, they are not able to progress further. This is highly recommended as it ascertains that the user has been given the opportunity to familiarize themselves with your controls and mechanics before they enter the core experience.

We also suggest enabling users to go back and complete the tutorial again after initial completion. This option to experience the tutorial on demand, along with a diagram of the controls are helpful especially for those who have cognitive disabilities or are unable to remember the controls.

Tutorial elements

Your tutorial should contain all the elements that people will need to progress in your application. This includes movement and locomotion methods, interactions, and controls, the meaning behind important visual cues, sounds, and haptics, as well as how to pause, save, or pull up the menu in your application.

It’s highly recommended to test your tutorial with a variety of audiences to make sure it’s easily understood and clear. Ideally, your tutorial will completely familiarize the player to your experience so they can enjoy your application without needing to relearn the controls or the meaning of the cues.

Training areas

In addition to offering tutorials that familiarize users with the controls, create a training ground area within your app where users can test and play with these interactions and mechanics. This will give users the space and time to become comfortable with the mechanics, particularly if they are facing mobility and cognitive challenges.

In VR, users often need additional time to familiarize themselves with the mechanics and will sometimes miss important interactions or cues. In other cases, users might not want to participate in social applications until they are confident in their knowledge of your control scheme. Enabling a training area will help users build confidence and familiarize themselves with the application on their own terms.

Rules/Behaviors

Whether or not your application is a game, by virtue of being a VR application, the user has much more agency than they do in non VR experiences. Often, this means your application will require rules and guidelines so that the user can progress through the application as you intend.

Warnings

It’s easy for players to get overstimulated in VR or simply miss visual cues because they don’t focus on the intended area within the 360 environment. However, building multisensory (i.e., visual, auditory, etc.) warnings can help prepare users for in-game events or sequences, and correct their actions if they are interacting with the experience in an unintended way.

No fail modes

Some applications include goals and quests that can be failed if a user doesn’t perform an action correctly. As a designer, you should consider that a user might not physically be able to complete the actions required to pass a level or achieve a goal. Consider adding a “no fail mode” or a mode for the application that allows the user to progress or complete the action, even if they can not do so in the way you intended. This way, the user can still fully experience your application without straining themselves.

Goals

As you design in-app goals, analyze them from various perspectives. What do the goals enable the player to accomplish? What does the player learn or experience by attaining the goal? Think about the intended user experience as you design goals and objectives and whether or not that user experience is the same across people with varying levels of cognitive, sensory, and physical abilities.

To maximize the number of users who have the intended experience, try making your goals attainable through multiple methods. This way, people can still retain the agency to progress through the experience with the accessibility features they prefer and still enjoy the same experience as others when they complete the app. This also rewards players who think creatively and promotes replayability as players try to find new ways to obtain each goal.

Another option for goal and objective design is to have your experience feature modular goals. This essentially means that the actions executed by the player to progress in the experience are segmented into various parts, leaving some as optional. For example, if a player is tasked with the goal of “Creating a Potion” they can choose from a set of optional goals. They can perhaps have the option to harvest berries, catch insects, or combine elements in order to complete the goal, each option would be independent of the other and all of them allow the user to ultimately accomplish the goal. The option of creating modular goals follows the theme of giving the user agency so that it’s more accessible to different playing methods and capabilities.

Undo/Redo

Allowing the user to undo or redo actions within the application can help players with disabilities--particularly those with limited mobility and cognition. If the user mistakenly performs a physical action in VR, for example, dropping an object or hitting a virtual button, allowing the player to undo that interaction can give them another opportunity to decide how they will progress in the application without suffering a significant penalty that causes them to abort the game or level.

In VR it may negatively impact the user’s immersion to have the ability to undo physical actions since this isn’t a realistic action we can take in real life. However, designing this into your mechanics is not an impossible task. For example, if you are building a narrative game, consider building in mechanics to rewind time, this would enable users a chance to reassess their actions or decisions. If you are building a training simulation, perhaps this can come in the form of allowing players to try again or press a button on the controller to move backwards one action.

Players who experience anxiety committing to a decision or those who fear losing progress can use this mechanic to gain confidence, and remain engaged in the experience.

Narrative and Character Design

If your application contains a narrative, there are plenty of ways to make your storyline more accessible for audiences. People who experience low vision or hearing loss, cognitive, or other disabilities can all have difficulty understanding, following, remembering, or interacting with narratives in a VR application. See below as we discuss some key elements of narrative accessibility including the delivery method, complexity, and characters.

Narrative delivery method

How your narrative reaches the audience can greatly influence their experience. For example, if your narrative is exclusively delivered via spoken dialogue, players who are distracted or those with hearing loss may have difficulty understanding what’s taking place within your application.

The narrative should be delivered through multiple methods including spoken dialogue or narration, text, in-application events, visual cues, audio logs, and more. The more delivery methods you have to tell your narrative, the better the chances your user will follow along. Consider again a person who is experiencing hearing loss, if they can parse your narrative through text logs or captioning and engage with visual cues, they will be able to more effectively follow the narrative.

Often, games will also add in diary entries, audio, or video recordings from their characters in the game world so that users can both discover these objects and learn more about the narrative through this content. These can be used as helpful tools to deliver information and further expand your narrative.

As an example of the above recommendations, let’s say you’re building a game about a dystopian future where mankind is struggling for survival on a space station. Instead of just stating this through dialogue, you could visually show it by showing the sky full of strange planets and hearing spaceship rockets fly by the windows in a hallway lined with space suits. In addition, narration and text that reads “Ursa Major - Space Station - Year: 3549” can appear when the person enters the space. The combination of hearing and seeing these elements builds an understanding for the player that they are in a space station without only saying it in spoken dialogue.

Narrative complexity

In order to best assure that your narrative will be understood, we suggest examining and testing the complexity of your narrative. A complicated narrative adds an additional layer of difficulty to players by forcing them to progress through complicated mechanics. While some users enjoy complicated narratives accompanied by difficult-to-master control schemes, others might prefer to have a simple control scheme so they can fully prioritize the complicated narrative or vice versa. This balance will depend on your application and your intent but you can design for it by testing early and often.

Read the narrative out to a tester while having them perform a complicated task and quiz them afterwards. What parts of the narrative were they able to retain? Did they focus enough to get all the information they need to progress in the game? Were they able to complete the task or were they distracted?

You should also consider how a complicated narrative will be communicated to people with disabilities. Will you be able to convey everything through visuals alone? Or simply dialogue? As always, we recommend using a combination of narrative delivery methods because a complicated narrative can be difficult to communicate through visuals alone..

For dialogue, narration, and text delivery of a narrative, pay close attention to the words, phrases, and context. As a general rule, to communicate important elements, use words and phrases that people can understand and avoid obscure outside-application knowledge. You should provide all the necessary context within the experience itself. A user should be able to understand the goal of a game without having to do extra research outside of the application.

Guiding Characters

A guiding character is a character who communicates to the player throughout the experience, alerting them if an action needs to be taken, if a mistake was made, or if something has been forgotten. These characters could be physically present in the 360 space, walking alongside the user, or appear in the form of a narrator or in audio clips.

These guiding characters can be helpful for things like notifying the player if they have low health, if they’re doing an interaction incorrectly, or nearing an enemy. This character type can be especially helpful in VR for players who might not be able to decode or respond to contextual cues such as visuals, haptics, or audio. Be sure to provide various ways for the Guiding characters to interact--through speech, visuals, captions, or even sign-language.

Example Characters or Visuals

As people learn how to perform new actions in VR, it’s often helpful to teach these actions by example, mimicking how a virtual character might do the same motion in front of the player. These characters don’t necessarily need to be fully realized in terms of narrative or aesthetics, as long as they serve the purpose of showing the users what they are meant to do. This can come in the form of shadows moving into positions that the player should follow, floating arms that repeatedly show a specific motion, or a full character who performs an action for the player to mimic. Consider various ways to demonstrate the action based on the user’s assistive technology settings.