VR: Making User Research Standard Practice

I came to VR, or rather VR came to me, a few years ago after some life-changing events shook me silly, and I woke up.  I have spent the last 16 years helping companies understand how people engage with their products and services, but these were sort of linear product-consumer relationships.  When VR (re)emerged on the scene, it was immersive in ways we've not yet been exposed to, which made user reaction critical to its success. It became my mission to help those in the industry see the value of VR user research, and help to craft as many user-driven, responsible, social good experiences as possible.  I've since been on a path to make qualitative user research standard practice in immersive content creation. 

We have a golden opportunity to become closer through VR, if we fill the gaping hole in the industry.   

That's Me On a Mission [In My Mind Anyway]

That's Me On a Mission [In My Mind Anyway]

My mission is to help content creators make, and buyers look for responsible, user-driven VR experiences.  

And thusly, I have a question for the masses - content developers, industry giants, hardware manufacturers, and the few organizations I see cropping up to set standards and practices in VR: 

Do You Want Users to Love Your Experience? 

And do you want them to return to VR on the regular?  In every other project I work on there is recognition that users add value in the pre- and post-design stage of a product or service. Design thinking is an entire discipline based on it.  Yet in VR, we often make do with man-on-the-street trials or UI studies looking at logistic rather than psychologic/emotional interactions. When we go to users in the early stages of development, we create experiences that are inherently relevant and meaningful - because they are co-created by users themselves.  I'm guessing any developer reading this just winced.  I get that.  But when we look at the overall goal of putting more 'good' VR into the world, we all want people to enjoy the creativity you bring.  That is only enhanced by letting users comment on, and improve it, through open-ended feedback. 

Understandably, studios (of any size) do not yet have expendable cash to invest in research.  And so much content is being pushed out, from the individual, to the studio, to giants like FB/Disney/NYTimes with little or no qualitative feedback on how we are processing it, that it is hard to keep up.  So here we sit. We've developed a standard of no standard.  We can change that.  The model that needs to be in place is:  research as a built-in cost of VR content. Anyone buying content, or commissioning someone to create it, should apply the same theory we do to marketing, branding or social impact initiatives - make it relevant to your users from Day 1, and they will be return customers.  

What Is Qualitative VR User Engagement, and Why is it Necessary?

Remember the premise behind good VR - it tricks the mind/body into believing we have lived, not imagined, an experience.  We already see how VR can alter pain, relieve depression, simulate surgery, reinvent the way math and science are taught, eradicate phobias, and offer embodiment of another gender/race/age/ability.  But what do we actually know about how these experiences affect us short or long term?  Because VR is the only medium humans have yet seen that can produce a highly emotionally and physically arousing state of mind/body, and redefine what counts as real life, we must start paying routine, methodologic attention to its social effects.  And this research must be available to everyday creators and buyers.  There is plenty of silo work being done in academia, neuroscience and UI (measuring gaze, controllers, horizon lines etc.), but zero-to-none on those cranking out amazing experiences that can have long-lasting effects on users.  How can this be? Because the rate of rapid-fire content creation hasn't stopped to smell the user roses.  And it's catching up with us. 

Ethnographic user engagement research (ER) meets consumers where they are, to observe how they engage with a product or service.  In contrast to a useability lab, for example, ER looks at use case, environment, social interaction, emotional reaction, physical reaction, attitudes, and...for the smart ones who also invest in follow-up, behavior change.  ER offers immediate, on-the-ground measurement of how a user felt during an experience.  Was presence broken at a certain spot?  Did she feel unsettled by a scene and come out of the experience in this same state? Will this experience effect him in his daily life?  How might he think or behave differently afterwards? And...for the social psych geeks like me...is this attitude/behavior change lasting?  Let's start measuring it.  

There are two key learnings that are immediately available from ER in VR: 

1) Observational Knowledge:  By going to users where they are, makers gain an in-depth understanding of the how.  How are people using their experience?  Alone?  Who else is there? What is the room scale?  What do they do before or after viewing?  How do they manage the emotional arousal of VR? What is the next hour like with them, after coming out of a particularly arousing experience? 

2) Practical Knowledge:  Did the content convey presence successfully?  What role did agency play, if the experience offered it?  How did cadence, audio, editing, lighting, gaze control, cybersickness, haptics and other variables fare?  What does the user report getting out of the experience?  What suggestions does he have to make improvements that align with the maker's objectives? 

Keeping VR on a Positive Adoption Trajectory

Skeptics still exist on the question of VR adoption.  As a scholar of diffusion of innovation, my take is that we've landed and mainstream adoption has arrived.  But, adoption is always susceptible to negative hits, and there are several ways we could move backwards.  If we continue to put out rapid fire content that is psychologically, physically and emotionally effective without routinely going to users to understand the effects, we may have a backlash on our hands.  We also have many companies wanting to make 'something' in VR because they feel the need to get on the innovation bandwagon.  Making something that is not necessary or optimal in VR just because it's possible also dilutes the integrity of the medium and hurts adoption.  

The movement towards ethics, standards and practices needs weight behind it.  And at that strategy table, we need social scientists as well as other experts working to establish conventions that work for creators and users alike.  The value of in-depth user research is a given.  Now we need to realize that the cost in dollars is well worth the cost of the effects on us as social beings.