Understanding Human-Centered Design and the Importance of Your Hands
"VR was horrible in the 1990s, especially compared to today," Jason Jerald asserts warmly. "But I didn't care, because I wanted it bad enough. Even though it was painful and horrible, it was worth it for the potential many of us could see back then."
Jason Jerald is a long-serving VR researcher, author, and Co-Founder of VR consultancy NextGen Interactive. And while he clearly adored his time serving VR in the 1990s, there's no rose tint over his vision as he looks back.
VR, Jerald admits, was a 'joke' in the 1990s. But today we may be enjoying the punch line, and that makes it all worth it.
Image Credit: Dr. Jonathan D. Waldern
"Looking back makes it feel like I'm living in a fantasy today, in terms of where VR is, and how much people are interested in it," Jerald offers. "This is something I – and others, of course – have been passionate about all the way through that era, so to see how many more are enthusiasm today is amazing. And then there's the innovation in the
field. It's a great time for VR."
PUTTING PEOPLE FIRST
Enthusiasm for VR's past – warts and all – is enchanting , but looking back also provides perspective for those building content for headsets today.
One of Jerald's specialties is the theory of human-centered design; a concept that is, at it's heart, remarkably simple. It's also an approach to content far more powerful that it may have been 20 years previously.
"Back then people in the VR world were talking about it being multidisciplinary, and we talked about needing psychologists and UX designers and so on," explains Jerald, who first honed his virtual reality craft as an engineer. "We said those things, but in reality those things never happened, as in the 1990s it was so difficult to get anything working at all; you had to be an engineer to duct tape things together and hack away to get things working. It was all engineering work then, really."
Today, that has changed. While the engineer's role is still vital to VR work, now large-scale hardware manufacturers are standardizing the physical platform that VR is, there is a great deal more opportunity for the multidisciplinary element of VR to blossom. Today we, of course, see UI and UX designers on VR teams, as well as audio specialists and cinematographers and those psychologists. The multidisciplinary model is now a standard in the medium.
And it is that make-up that allows content makers to take a human-centered approach.
"Now we can focus on the human element of VR," Jerald confirms. "The human element is 50 per cent of the equation here. The hardware and technology is great, but if you don't have a human in the loop, who cares? VR is about the experiences it's users have; not the hardware and content in isolation."
There, in its fundamental form, is the definition of human-centred design: an approach that considers the human as much as – or more than – the technology.
Jerald would argue that while human-centred design matters everywhere, from the front end of consumer software to the layout of a car's dashboard, it is in VR that its implementation is especially important.
"If you make content for a phone or a webpage or whatever, if you have a bad design on the human side of things people might get frustrated, but they won't – in most cases – get sick. With VR human-centered design is hugely important. You don't want users getting sick, or tripping over cables, or feeling lost in a room, and all that can happen in VR."
And the most powerful tool in a VR designer's arsenal when considering a human-centered approach? It might just be the tracked hand controllers. When Jerald is in an academic mood, he calls them the 'tools of bimanual interaction', but he admits it might be simpler to go with 'two-handed interactions'.
"If I'm really honest, I thought hand controllers might have been a little further out in the development of VR, but it's great to see the lead hardware manufacturers committing to that, because they really help with the human-centred approach," a frank Jerald admits.
"All these hand tracked controllers are really just an extension of the human hand; a way to bring the hand into virtual reality," he continues. "And that's just a way us humans are used to working in the real world. Bringing our hands into VR is just so important in terms of taking VR to the next level, and making VR content more human; more natural to being human."
It is that mindset that is at the core of the human-centred concept; the notion of serving the human experience through appropriate design, rather than making the user adapt to what the content insists on being.
Jerald also has a simple rule to remember when attempting human-centered design. Or three rules, depending on how you look at it.
"If you want your VR games to be human centered, there are three rules: iterate; iterate; iterate," Jerald proposes. "I just can't over emphasise that, and for multiple reasons, but one key reason. Iterating will let you get around the fact that what you think will work in VR might not."
And he has one more nugget of advice for those hoping to make their VR creations compliment the user they serve.
"You also need to get humans into your VR creations," he concludes. "Iterate with real users, and get people into your content. Ask them questions, but also observe them, because their answers might not be direct, if they are trying to be nice to you. Pull data from the user sessions too, and remember you are serving human beings first." In short, the helping hand of humans in designing VR experiences can not be overestimated.