Let’s avoid making the same mistakes

Dear designers,

Congratulations on living through the era of websites. Congratulations for all the effort you’ve put in, together, over the last 30 years. I lived through it too, it’s been a slog.

Together we’ve fought to change the software development culture to consider the human in the experience. We’ve taught folks about the value of usability and how it will affect both commercial and brand value. It took them a while but business and technology sectors are now listening.

Thanks for fighting the good fight for usability and adapting so quickly to how the internet changed the way people live and work. And thanks for helping it happen. Thanks for sticking together through the mobile wars. You remember, those days of 7 browsers across 456 devices. It’s been a ride and we’ve learned a lot.

We’ve learned a lot about ourselves too. We used to consider ourselves ‘the experts’. Those gifted few who gave the impression that our extraordinary empathy meant we could ‘design’ things without consulting the end user because “we knew what people wanted.” Obviously, this has changed. Now, sometimes we’re criticised for doing too much research. We’ve been accused of deferring to user input too many times. We’ve been criticised for avoiding a little bit of leadership-style decision making, and we’ve delayed things to everyone’s frustration. So we listened, and we got a bit leaner. We came up with ‘design sprints’ to arrive at solutions earlier without excluding the end user. And, for the most part, it’s worked pretty well, so thank you.

But now, as we leave this era of 2D flat screens behind us, a mountain has risen up from the ocean in front. And despite its name, Virtual Reality, the challenges we’ve got ahead are real.

We’re back at square one right now. We’re reaching a new technology precipice but there’s something oddly familiar about it all. We’re also a hell of a lot smarter now so let’s try not to make the same mistakes again.

Matt begins to see the future. It’s looking pretty bright.

Matt begins to see the future. It’s looking pretty bright.

Let’s remain focussed on needs

VR, not mobile, might be our children’s first experience with anything digital.

We know how to find useful applications for technology now. We’re smarter than just making shit that people don’t need or want, aren’t we? VR is going to offer new opportunities. New marketing opportunities, new entertainment opportunities, new opportunities in training, education and health. In war, porn and hacking too. As we fully grasp the power of this new medium let’s not forget that humans are still at the centre of any technology. We make it, and we use it. Our families use it. Our sons and daughters will grow up with it. VR, not mobile, might be their first experience with anything digital.

Just pause, and think about that for a moment.

So, let’s try to avoid the splash screen thing again. Or flashing banner ads. Please. Let’s not waste our collective human intelligence building things that people don’t need. Please. Let’s establish a culture of VR design that puts the needs of the user first on day one.

Let’s share what we learn, so we can get better

You may be an expert in software design, or web design, or any sort of design, but no one is an expert in virtual reality design, not yet anyhow.

We know that people feel more comfortable when things are familiar and consistent. Let’s keep this in mind this time when we’re trying to work out what works best in VR. If you discover something, tell the world. We’re entering a new medium where interaction design isn’t quite defined yet so let’s define it together, faster than before. Let’s not flash 404 errors in their face. Let’s not even speak about errors in terms of weird web codes. Let’s make sure that users know where they are at all times. Let’s not make them sick or nauseous. We can, but surely we know better than that now. Let’s not merely throw shit at a wall and see what sticks. Let’s be considered and measured in how we approach our design solutions. Let’s test them before we release them to billions of people. Let’s challenge our assumptions. We don’t know everything. You may be an expert in software design, or web design, or any sort of design, but no one is an expert in virtual reality design, not yet anyhow.

Let’s be aware of the consequences of our decisions and actions. We know it’s OK to fail, so let’s. Let’s fail fast and share what we learn so it doesn’t take 30 years to learn our lessons this time. Let’s become experts together.

Let’s play nice

We’ve already lived through years of device inconsistency but designers are involved in the hardware too. We’re all racing toward the same goal: the best possible VR experience — so can’t we play nicely together? Let’s agree on standards quickly, let’s share the same platforms. Let’s not spend our time integrating old systems, dealing with historical tech debt or spending time having to support another 465 versions of the same thing. Let’s talk to each other regularly. Let’s be mindful of the impact that our decisions have on the lives of the people we love. Let’s innovate but let’s not forget why we’re doing all of this in the first place.

Whether you design software, hardware, private or public service, there’s a good chance that Virtual Reality will create an impact on you. We’ve lived through some pretty crap times as we’ve fumbled our way through making the internet a fundamental part of how we live our lives — and we’ve come out the other end in pretty good shape. Imagine if we could have our time over again knowing what we know now. Imagine how different our relationship with technology would be. Well, we’ve got another chance. Let’s not waste it like we did last time.

Matt’s been working in VR for 12 months and loves using tech to help humans. Follow him on Twitter or talk with Cogent, they make remarkable software.