The introduction of consumer–focused Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) products means technology has surpassed the confines of the physical world. The stories we now tell have become more immersive than ever before. We are on the precipice of digital immersion, but with that comes a number of pertinent moral and design questions. Namely, how have we reached this point and most importantly, given this new context, what can we do as user experience practitioners to ensure we provide the best experience to our users with moral integrity?
The arrival of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality
Technology has allowed us to communicate ideas, share knowledge and grow as a species throughout history. From early writing systems and hand–crafted tools, to the industrial and digital revolutions of the last century, technology has caused seismic shifts in our cultural and solution evolution, and the same is true of our digital realities. With the advent of virtual worlds becoming a reality, the stories which inhabit these worlds may determine the society we make for the next generation.
As our experiences are becoming more immersed, so must our understanding of the environments in which we now reside and communicate. No longer hidden behind a screen, the digital world has become one which we now step into and engage with directly. This transition towards reality–breaking technologies has a clear and defined impact on how we design for user experiences within these digital worlds.
For example, where we have previously interacted using keyboard strokes, mouse clicks and finger gestures, the new mechanics of these realities include hand tracking, full body motion and environmental positioning. It is because of these new mechanics that we must take into consideration the physiological factors that can arise from immersive environments. These include, dizziness, headaches, excess salivating and cybersickness, a form of motion sickness stemming from exposure to Virtual Reality (American Physiological Society, 2018), as well as physical lethargy from headset and device overuse.
The ethical conundrum
Over the last number of years, the progression of AR and VR from science–fiction to household consumer technology has come a long way. This progress without proper guidance however, can lead to potential ethical problems in how we engage with these future technologies. Issues such as social isolation could become an easy and unhealthy problem for users, while the mental impact of ‘virtual crimes’ could lead to real–world changes in social behaviour.
The role that UX plays within this ethical conundrum is to ensure the human factor is always considered first. At the forefront of every immersive digital experience, we should not be asking what we can do, but what we should do. Through taking this perspective and positioning questions in this way, we can place ethics at the forefront of our decisions.
To support the ethical design of immersive products, UX practitioners must include the end user at every step of the product lifecycle, from initial concept, through to MVP and beyond the product launch. Throughout the design process, we must also consider the intentional and unintentional actions and behaviours of users, such as improper or criminal use as seen when Augmented Reality and Geo–location mobile app Pokemon Go was used to target and rob victims.
Design methods to help protect in immersive experiences
‘Consequence Scanning’ is a great way to map out the potential impact of a product or feature to help determine the intended and unintended consequences of a product. A native agile practice, Consequence Scanning is delivered as a workshop, providing the opportunity to share knowledge and discuss potential concerns. Within a Consequence Scanning workshop you will need to answer three questions about your product:
What are the intended and unintended consequences of your product or feature?
2. What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?
3. What are the unintended consequences we want to mitigate?
It is important to remember the main goal of this workshop is to identify the consequences, not provide solutions to them.
By running this workshop at the beginning of a project, or during feature development, we can ensure that ethical design is considered throughout the product lifecycle, and any impact or risk to the user has been mitigated.
The human factor and importance of environment
Arango (2018) suggested that, “information environments create contexts that influence our behaviour and actions”. If this is true, then we must be proactive in creating environments that protect and support us. As UX practitioners, we must strive to understand both the positive and negative influences that these immersive environments have in order to support the next generation of digital experience.
Digital fatigue is a physiological factor that could impact user experience and its influence on the individual must be considered. In order to decipher this, we could begin to research how this can impact the mental and physical health of users. These insights could lead to design recommendations such as in–app prompts advising taking a short break, family control settings or improving the ergonomics of hardware and peripherals.
A current example of applied user experience in Virtual Reality is the ‘guardian’ mechanism. It is a mechanism that is designed to help protect the user and the real–world environment from any mishaps or damages while engaging in an immersive experience. The mechanism represents a safe and playable area, this virtual wall appears if a user gets to the edge of the defined VR environment. Once the grid appears, the user can re–calibrate their position within the guardian area and continue.
When setting up a virtual reality environment, we are normally prompted to create a ‘safe space’ within the real world. This ‘safe space’ must meet the same standards of empathy and design to the digital environments we already experience, ensuring that with all new technologies we understand the human factor first and foremost.
With the COVID–19 pandemic creating a global lockdown, our world has shifted to an increasingly digital workspace. This disruptive transition has seen business, education and health services all relying on an increasingly digital experience. In the consumer market, VR and AR technologies are becoming more cost–effective and readily available, with the gaming VR market in the UK seeing an increase of 18% from 2019–2020.
The importance of User Experience within the next generation of immersive environments cannot be understated. Since the inception of the first desktop computer, we have become increasingly better at designing digital interfaces that evoke feelings of confidence, security and sometimes even joy. With mobile technologies, these digital worlds are now available at your fingertips providing a wealth of global information – no matter where you are. Now, when designing for Augmented and Virtual Reality, we must look at these technologies through a similar lens, and with the same level of empathy; only then can we truly provide the best experience possible. Ultimately, our responsibility as UX practitioners should be to create something that uses technology to enhance our real–world experiences, not distract from them.
Alireza Mazloumi Gavgani, Frederick R. Walker, Deborah M Hodgson, Eugene Nalivaiko (2018.10.2018), Motion sickness vs. cybersickness: Two different problems or the same condition?, American Physiological Society: 23.02.2021 from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1123621/uk-gaming-vr-market-sales-growth-2020/
Arango, Jorge (2018) Living with Information, Two Waves Books
Johansson, Anna (2018.04.18), 9 ethical problems that with VR we still have to solve, The Next Web, Retrieved: 23.02.2021
McEvoy, Fiona J (2018.01.04), 10 ethical concerns that will shape the VR industry, Venture Beat, Retrieved: 23.02.2021
Yuhas, Alan (2016.07.09), Pokémon Go: armed robbers use mobile game to lure players into trap, Retrived: 23.02.2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jul/10/pokemon-go-armed-robbers-dead-body