Written by Laura Chang, Mick McGee, and Garrett Godsey

One of the biggest challenges of being in the design industry, and a main reason why we love being in it, is that technology – both the technologies we design for, and the technologies we use to design – change at an incredibly rapid pace. On one hand, this is awesome. As designers we constantly get to dream big, geek out over new tools and capabilities, and drive transformational changes to the way we live and interact with each other. We believe that things can always be made better – more efficient, more beautiful. On the other hand, how can we possibly stay on top of it all? The interfaces, tools, and styles we’re familiar with today may very well not exist ten years from now. How do we build a toolkit of UX strategies when the technology around us keeps changing? If you were to pluck us out of the year 2013 and send us 30 years into the future, would we be able to do our jobs? . .

Virtual Reality, and Augmented Reality

However unfamiliar the future may become, it is not completely unpredictable. For example, for years we’ve been dreaming of true virtual reality: immersive & augmented experiences that take us into separate universes, that have moved beyond research laboratories into everyday markets. We’ve traveled down this fictional rabbit hole many times with movies like The Matrix and books like Snow Crash and Neuromancer. We’ve also made many forays in research labs with CAVE’s (Cave Automatic Virtual Environments) and Steve Mann’s wearable computing, and early companies like Jaron Lanier’s VPL Research selling the first VR goggles in 1985.

Today, companies like Oculus are building the next revolution of consumer priced virtual reality head-mounted display units. They held a Kickstarter fundraising campaign asking for $250,000 and were surprised to receive $2.5 million instead, all in record time. Developer kits are already available for purchase for a mere few hundred dollars,  and gaming companies are chomping at the bit to give their support. As seems to be a recurring pattern these days, the visionary sci-fi future is closer than we had ever imagined.

How to design for the future

What are design strategies we could lean on? How would the process differ from the one we apply to today’s UI, UX, and usability challenges? A few simple tenants will keep us designing for success years into the future:

Keep the user front and center

No matter what else changes, the user will always come first. Just as you would with any new design project, eliminate what you think you know about your users, and take the time to get to know them. If anything, designing for immersive & augmented experiences literally requires you to step into a user’s shoes – to understand how his or her world looks and feels.

Design for context

Technology is never used in complete isolation. In particular, when using something that augments your visual scenery, your surroundings are likely to require you to think and react in very deliberate ways. When designing, consider: where will the user be, and what will he or she be doing, when interacting with this interface? How might his or her environment be enhanced by, or limit, the use of this technology?

Keep it simple

The best designs strip user experiences down to the bare essentials. This will definitely be the case when designing for immersive experiences that do not have the luxury of screen real estate. Keep text to a minimum, and steer the user through one clear prompt a time. When designing for fully immersive environments (akin to CAVE’s), you have “infinite” real estate, but simplicity will still win the design day.

Test and iterate

To truly understand what it takes to design for a new technology, take the time to experiment. You will certainly be surprised by how your ideas work in practice.

What’s Next?

The answer is that we need to stay nimble and adhere to future-proof design and research principles. We need to build a scalable, robust way of thinking about design that will last well into the path that unfolds ahead of us. Bringing it back to basics has us primed for the newest and most innovative design challenges.

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