Non-gamers don’t instinctively know terms such as ‘thumb stick’ or ‘left trigger’ when casually referenced, but any gamer will instantly know what is required of them in order to interact with a virtual object.
To get to the root of this problem, we need to think back to when somebody first used a computer with a mouse. This alien concept with its unusual sounding terms like ‘click’ and ‘hover’ didn’t always make immediate sense to some people and before they could learn to use the web or email, they first had to learn to use a mouse. These days nobody talks about the user experience of a website in relation to users not knowing how to click a link. But this was once an issue and currently is an issue for VR, while we are still in the relatively early stages of adoption into the mainstream.
We have also observed that there are other differences between gamers and non-gamers using VR. Most gamers approach a new application that they aren’t sure how to use with a sense of curiosity and exploration. This normally takes the form of within seconds of launching the app, pressing every button on the controller to establish its individual purpose. Once learned they quickly move on to testing the limits of the app to find out its ‘rules’. For example, seeing if they can throw an object across the room or trying to punch a human avatar. This knowledge of the boundaries becomes critical to their understanding of what kinds of things can and can’t be attempted later.
Non-gamers tend to take a very different approach to this unfamiliarity. Most won’t touch any buttons on the controller and often won’t even look around the environment. Instead they prefer instruction, and only then will they attempt to do what they are asked, often not deviating from that specific task, possibly for fear that doing so may break something.
While it would be great if you could take a user, who has never played a game before, stick them in VR and have them perform rich touch-based interactions, this just isn’t going to happen. Some may manage it, but many won’t ever get past the basics and out of frustration will simply give up and claim they can’t do it. This isn’t just bad for your app, it’s also bad for VR take up as a whole as that user now has a preconceived opinion that VR isn’t for them. If that user is also a decision maker within your organisation, the whole concept of VR could then be put in jeopardy.
The next step is to design your app with as few different interactions as possible, and ideally focus on a single interaction. Grabbing is your friend here. This interaction is so versatile that it can be used for many different things. Try to keep objects within your environment simple, which brings us to the final point.
If possible, give your users the ability to put those objects in different places to denote actions. For example, instead of creating a 2D menu that a user needs to press a button on the controller to access, why not create a menu from physical objects within the environment? The way you interact with the handheld controllers is different from how you would interact with a laptop, so design accordingly.
While gamer and non-gamer approaches to an unfamiliar VR app can be very challenging for an educational VR designer, fortunately they are not insurmountable. Users shouldn’t attempt your app without first having gone through some kind of basic tutorial on how to look around and how to pick and drop objects. Oculus have a great little tutorial on the Quest called ‘First Steps’. This would be the first thing somebody who bought a Quest would be presented with and it provides a playful way to get to grips with basic touch-based VR interactions. As most higher education users won’t own their own Quest this vital tutorial would normally be skipped. From our user experience testing, this is a big mistake and is akin to putting users in front of a website for the first time without having previously explained how to use a mouse. It’s a tall ask to expect users to succeed. They need to come to your app with a base level knowledge, just like those gamers naturally do. Only when they have become proficient in First Steps can you realistically expect them to learn from your app without the unfamiliarity of the controls getting in the way.