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Designing for VR: applying usability heuristics to Virtual Reality

By Avery Hennings

As VR starts to get more and more traction in the marketplace, UX professionals are now turning their attention to how we design usable, enjoyable and comfortable VR experiences.

There are a lot of different sources and references for UX Design in VR which can act as a really good starting point, such as Designing VR for Humans by Mike Alger, Get started with VR: user experience design from VRINFLUX, and Designing VR Tools: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from Leap Motion.

However, whilst there is a lot of congruity between these different resources, it does highlight one of the main challenges facing UX in VR. We don’t have any standards yet. UX in VR is only just starting to find it’s feet, and in the same way standards had to be developed in the early days of the web, UX standards need to be developed for VR.

One of my specialisms as a UX Specialist over the past few years has been performing Heuristic Reviews, and then making Design Recommendations based off those Heuristics.

So to approach UX in VR, that’s what I’m going to start with, how do the Heuristics that I know and love apply. As the basis for this, I’ll be using Bruce Tognazzini’s First Principles of Interaction Design. I won’t discuss all of them, just the ones I feel are the most relevant for discussion. You can view these in more detail here.

Tognazzini describes these principles as follows:

“The following principles are fundamental to the design and implementation of effective interfaces, whether for traditional GUI environments, the web, mobile devices, wearables, or Internet-connected smart devices”


  • Form should never trump function; visual style should always come second to usability
  • Visual design should be tested as rigorously as behavioral design

Whilst in the early adopter stage of the VR movement, it is really important that Usability is highlighted above all else. If VR applications aren’t easy to use, it won’t matter how pretty they look, they just won’t be adopted. So for now, let’s just try to keep the aesthetics as simple as possible. Not to mention that an over abundance of colour and visual detail is likely to add to the potential for VR sickness. If you want to understand a little bit more about VR sickness, check out this post by Stephanie Pappas on Live Science.


  • Enable users to make their own decisions
  • Exercise responsible control
  • Up-to-date and visible status mechanisms

Autonomy is of critical importance in the VR environment, as the whole point of these systems is that the user is given total control of their environment and how they interact with it. So UX Designers need to give clues to the next steps that don’t make the user feel like they’re being led through the process. These can include things like the use of Sound to attract attention, Visual Cues on objects that can be interacted with etc.


  • Any time you use colour to convey information in the interface, also use clear secondary cues to convey information to those who cannot see the colours.

This is just as important as it has ever been, in fact more so, as the user must ALWAYS know how to interpret the information being presented to them. If they have to take their headset off to find out what something means, the process has failed.


  • The importance of maintaining strict consistency varies by level
  • Visual inconsistency when things act differently
  • Strive for continuity, not consistency
  • “The important consistency is consistency with user expectations” – William Buxton

We are introducing users to a new way of interacting with applications and experiences, and as such they don’t have the engrained awareness of how things behave. So consistency in interactions is going to be critical to allow them to learn how to interact with their environment.

This is where a lack of standards is really going to hurt UX in VR at the beginning, as users will have to re-learn their interactions when moving between platforms.


  • Any attempt to hide complexity will serve to increase it
  • If the user cannot find it, it does not exist

Discoverability and Autonomy are going to have to work hand in hand when it comes to VR, the user needs to be able to easily find the functionality and interactions available to them within the VR environment. They need to be within their field of vision and easily identifiable in the foreground with contrast to the background.

This is where natural gestures come in to play too, things like lifting an arm to read your watch could be incorporated as a gesture to see more information. We can’t clutter the main UI too much as this is going to increase the cognitive load on the user. To make VR a pleasant experience for the users, we have to come up with new ways of finding functionality.

Efficiency of the User

  • Look at the user’s productivity, not the computer’s
  • Don’t keep the user waiting

When a user is entered into a full-immersion experience such as VR, they expect to be able to interact with it as they would their normal world. Any limitations to this are going to cause frustration. There are no loading screens in normal life. The process of using a VR environment should be as close to normal day-to-day interactions as possible to really maximize the potential take-up of the technology.

Fitt’s Law

  • The time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target

Fitt’s Law will become an even larger factor within Virtual Reality, as it isn’t just eye movement that is required to find features of the applications any more. There will have to be considerations made for the environment in which the VR applications are to be used. Users will have very different comfortable Fields of Vision, whether they are sitting or standing, and also dependent on what headset they are using and the weight it adds to their head.

So required distance to find the next required interaction will have to be kept at a minimum or we’re all going to end up with really stiff necks.


  • Ideally, products would have no learning curve

Learnability is going to be very important when it comes to VR applications. Users are wearing a headset, so they can’t look at a manual even if they wanted to. The combination of effective Metaphors, Consistency and Visual Cues to interactions will make it a lot easier for a user to get to grips with the use of a VR application.

Metaphors, Use Of

  • Choose metaphors that will enable users to instantly grasp the finest details
  • If a metaphor is holding you back, abandon it

As the name suggests, Virtual Reality is an attempt to create a whole new virtual world, so the users will want to be able to interact with it in a similar manner to how they interact with the normal world. So as designers, our use of metaphor will be a lot more grounded in the physical world rather than in the 2D. A user sees a light switch or a door handle and they know how to use it instinctually.


  • Text that must be read should have high contrast
  • Use font sizes that are large enough to be readable
  • Favor particularly large characters for the actual data you intend to display

Text in VR is going to be hard. The variation in background and foreground colours and contrasts is going to make it very difficult to incorporate text effectively into an application. The only real answer here is to make it as large and bold as possible to maximize the legibility of the text. The simple answer is that text heavy applications just won’t be all that effective in VR.

User Experience Design in the Virtual Reality world is going to be challenging, we’ve been so used to the way things should work in Desktop and Mobile applications that adjusting to this new paradigm is going to take some work. We have a whole new host of considerations that need to be brought into our design process.

UX Specialists will have to take inspiration from a large variety of industry areas, such as Theatre, Industrial, Product and Environment Design, to be able to be successful. However, I hope what I’ve shown in this article is that if we start by sticking to what we know and utilizing the same principles that have made us so successful up until now, we’ll be off to a good start.

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