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Designing spaces in VR

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Museum. Airport. Supermarket. Office. These are spaces that conjure a pretty clear picture in our minds. We instantly associate ‘Museum’ with high ceilings, open galleries, natural light and sweeping staircases. ‘Airport’ brings to mind long rows of benches, windows overlooking miles of tarmac, and LED signs that normally break the dreaded news that our flight is delayed.

Even though these spaces have such obvious characteristics in our minds, when one of the first supermarkets opened it in the United States in 1930, there was no ‘How to lay out a supermarket book’ to reference when designing the store. Michael J Cullen the man credited with opening the first US supermarket simply worked to the principle of ‘Pile it high, Sell it low’ and with this, the instantly recognisable supermarket layout was born. Long aisles of products, set at a height the average person could reach and that would allow multiple people to browse at the same time.

The supermarket design followed the basic functional need the stores had to provide customers, and was bound by the limitations of space and architecture. While this layout has been slightly adapted over the years, the basic premise has remained the same, and has been the blueprint for supermarkets ever since.

So if we could design a space that can have any form we like with very little technical limitations, where do we even start?

As designers we employ various tactics on the web and in apps, to encourage our users to consume more content than ever before. These have been refined over years of trial and error to squeeze as much consumption from each user as we can. Netflix for example employs hundreds of people to feed their algorithm to ensure their rows of films and shows are in the most attractive order for their users, to encourage consumption.

On these platforms most users have learned behaviours. They know for example that the most recent or most popular content will probably be at the top of the page, or that an image with a play icon on it usually denotes video content.

Can we build on these learned behaviours when it comes to VR? Is an image with a play icon still the best way to direct someone to a piece of video content in a virtual environment? Now that we will be immersing our users in our content rather than making them look at it through the window of a screen, what do we do with the rest of the space?

Simply copying design patterns over from the web will limit this new opportunity we’ve been given to create real immersive experiences.

So while web designers have been manipulating users to increase their content consumption for years, the same rules don’t necessarily apply to spaces. Where can we look to to give us inspiration in solving these same problems in VR?

Supermarkets have been quietly manipulating us for years. Ever wondered why the fruit and veg aisles are always at the entrance to the supermarket? No me neither, but that I guess that’s what makes it so clever.

Deliberately putting their fresh produce at the entrance to their stores encourages supermarket shoppers to spend more money. As soon as we enter we are assaulted by bright primary colours and strong smells enticing us in. Even having fresh flowers in this area makes us feel like all of this produce must be freshly picked and delivered straight from the farm.

Even colour is a tool used by supermarkets to help users navigate a space and even encourage users to spend more money. Banana company Dole conducted analysis on the colour of their product, and found that bananas with the exact Pantone color 12-0752 (Buttercup) were more likely to be purchased than bananas with the Pantone color 13-0858 (Vibrant yellow). They’ve used this knowledge to tailor their growing process to produce bananas at this colour, and passed this knowledge down to the retailers to help encourage spending in stores. (Read more in Brandwashed by by Martin Lindstrom)

Even at the most basic level supermarkets stack their shelves to manipulate shoppers. For cereal, big name brands are arranged in the middle shelves where they are easily seen and picked up, with kids brands being lower to attract kids attention, and smaller or less known brands up on the top shelf almost out of the way.

So what if we combined some of these supermarket design patterns with some of the challenges we might face in VR? Could we take their learnings and apply it to a problem most web designers try to solve every day?

Let’s say for example we have seven short immersive experiences we want our users to enter. We’ve got 2 premium ones that we want to use to demonstrate the power of VR and ones that we think we could use to hook our users and make them want to view the rest.

Using our learned behaviours from the web we might end up creating an experience like this one below -

Learned behaviours from the web Learned behaviours from the web

This layout would play on users learned behaviours on the web; that the top content is the most recent or most important, and the biggest content is something we want them to pay attention to.

When we cross over into designing for VR though this pattern is no longer relevant, yet this doesn’t mean we have to start from scratch. We can look at patterns that our users might already have learned, just one from a real world situation. If we think about some of the techniques supermarkets use to encourage buying, we might come up with a design that looks something like this instead -

Most relevant content right in our user's eyeline Most relevant content right in our user's eyeline

Designing for VR will be a challenging transition for most designers and content owners, but that doesn't mean we have to start from scratch. We can look to real world examples and take inspiration from how they solve problems.

Of course designing for this new medium this will be a constantly evolving practice that will develop it’s own learned behaviours eventually just like the web, but until then, let’s give ourselves a leg up.

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