Building VR Design Patterns for the Vive

Client HTC Vive

Patterns for a new medium

About a year before HTC launched the Vive, they approached us to help them develop design guidelines for Virtual Reality. This would be the first commercially available room-scale VR experience, and the design team in Seattle was still working out exactly how to go about designing for it. The looming question then was, what is the quickest way to design a system in a medium with no established standards?

The core experience

HTC's vision included a core experience simple and clear enough that anyone could have an amazing first run, but that could be built on to eventually support a wide universe of interconnected content—whether that be user-generated, HTC-produced, or made by third-party developers. The system needed to be accessible, intuitive, extensible, and not get in the way of anyone's fun.

So first we worked to establish fundamental baselines for things like text, movement, object interactions, and menu behaviors. There were so few examples to draw from that almost every aspect had to be concepted, designed, and built from the ground up.

Once the smallest building blocks were covered, we focused on interactions with more complex objects and interactions. This included consuming non-3D media through virtual "devices", social interactions, in-app purchasing, and helping users move beyond the bounds of their physical rooms.

Developing instincts through prototyping

Working in a brand new medium is a challenge. You begin with almost no intuition, and many concepts you try just don’t pan out. So we worked in very short cycles, each time trying to broadly explore workflows for a given interaction. At the end of each week, we'd take demos to the client, share what was useful (or what wasn't), and decide what to build next.

Consulting with content partners

As the relationship continued our expertise found its way into an early-stage partnership HTC was testing out. Like everyone at that time, they had never worked in VR. So for the next few months, we assisted their design team in shaping existing content into a VR-friendly form—exploring a mix of 2D, 3D, and 360˚ content, and arranging said content within a physical experience—with a general goal of helping them find experiences that actually improved upon their current 2D counterparts.

Story, world, and documentation

We don't engage in building worlds on most projects, but it came up in conversations so frequently—VR apps are, after all, worlds unto themselves—that we knew it couldn't be glossed over. And while some interactions were objectively better than others, it was the in-world meaning of those interactions that made them work for a user. So, after the consumer device was launched, we started to shift our focus from how things functioned to why things functioned. This thinking, we felt, was crucial in making the interface—and the illusion it sells to the user—into a unified and magical experience.

Our final task was to compile the learnings from our year of VR experiments into a comprehensive document, so that the HTC team could continue to build up the knowledge base, onboard new team members with greater ease, and make better design contributions to this incredible medium.

Further reading

If you're curious about VR and looking for a better starting point, we wrote a very short series designed to help you get into the right mindset. And, as always, if you're interested in help with a VR experience (game, tool, product, etc), give us a shout.