VR as the Next Power UI
A Virtual Reality office. Image: Envelop

Power users appear to have an ability to process a lot more information than other users, and there’s some truth to that. In fact, repeated exposure to some context triggers a process in our brains to create mental patterns. These mental patterns become more robust with time, making it easier to process matching information that exists in a different format and in different parts of the brain.

Mental patterns reduce the cognitive load on the brain—the amount of mental effort to learn something—which also affects our ability to intake information. The information covered by those patterns is easier to process and thus feels a lot more comfortable. In effect, a power user, or even just a frequent user, is ready to deal with a lot more information than other users, due to the previously created mental patterns. More areas of the brain process the information, which allows for faster and easier understanding.

This isn't just specific to some individuals. Remember how much easier driving a car became over time—as you developed the mental patterns for it. What separates power or frequent users from first-time users is the existence of mental patterns that make the ability to process information second nature, like driving that car.

Designing for Different Users

Interfaces that cater to both user types are not easy to design. Some techniques like progressive disclosure can be somewhat effective. But, applications tend to be designed for one type of user.

Let’s review different types of applications and their intended users:

  • Websites are designed for first-time users and sporadic use. So they are standard, usually following interface conventions to capitalize on existing mental patterns. They have the minimum amount of information possible, and they try to balance the need to push a message and reduce the cognitive load.
  • News websites are aimed at a more frequent user. They still need to appeal to new users, but their business is about systematically conveying information. Users already have real-world mental patterns, from reading actual newspapers and magazines, so their ability to process information of this sort and the associated cognitive load is a lot lower.
  • Workplace systems will most likely feel very different from websites. These systems do not have to survive in the same arena as the previous ones. Their users can be trained and will be using the systems daily. This creates the setting to design these systems for efficiency, as these frequent users will quickly develop the mental patterns required to handle a lot more information — and they’ll want it.

So, in short, depending on the target audience, user experience design tends to either favor intuition, the ability to learn quickly, or efficiency.

Smaller Cognitive Ability Explains the Mobile-first Approach

In 2008, a new approach to designing applications arose — the mobile-first approach. It led organizations to start thinking about how an application could be used on a mobile device and then go for its counterpart on the web.

In essence, it is an easy-to-grasp approach that recognizes and tackles the challenges described before. By recognizing the cognitive ability of the target audience, mobile-first’s simple and sticky design direction effectively leads organizations to make the right simplification decisions — to strip the interface to its bare minimum, while still retaining its core message or functionality.

So, mobile-first called out the need to adapt to a rookie target audience and provided the means to cater to users with more rudimentary skills.

Designing for Higher Cognitive Loads

Call center systems, for example, are quite different from regular websites or news sites. Until recently they were essentially mainframe interfaces navigated by codes. Only by using the systems repeatedly, which created the right mental patterns, were people able to operate them. And, with time, it became second nature. They flew through several different applications at lightning speed, picking up a piece of information here and taking it there. Working in one system and then switching to another and so on.

Moved by the business need to reduce call times, many of these systems have been redesigned in the last decade or so. These new designs are very different from the websites described before — they are designed for efficiency. These custom-built systems aggregate several information sources and make operations from different back-end systems seamless. Each is a powerful console for quickly catering to the callers’ most common needs.

The new interfaces are, thus, heavy on presented information and available operations. They’re full of panels, data, dozens of input fields, several levels of navigation and tabs—tabs everywhere. Often, new panels and elements are left out, not due to usability concerns, but because they just don’t fit! These applications and similar ones are not designed for self-learning and intuition. They assume a user training cost and a larger learning curve to allow for the maximum efficiency of the interface.

In short, designing for power users means designing information-packed interfaces, placing a lot of power at their fingertips.

VR will do for Power Users What Mobile-First Did for First-Time Users

Virtual reality (VR) interfaces are on the opposite end of the spectrum of mobile devices. They provide a massive amount of real estate for the interface. If you’ve been following along to this point, you’ll have learned that this is exactly what power users crave.

Immersive VR
Source: orion-vr.com

Picking up the call-center scenario, in a not too distant future, we can expect that a lot of offices will be filled with people wearing VR headsets, immersed in their digital worlds. Digital worlds designed to provide all the required information and operations possible to make solving a customer’s query or issue a breeze.

Operators will have a wide viewing angle and wave their arms as they instruct for navigation, perform operations or just perform zoom commands. It will be an amazing dance.

There is promise, but there are also some hurdles to overcome.

Challenges for VR Adoption

VR has some big names behind it, and a lot of things are happening. It’s already redefining consumer entertainment, and that’s usually an obvious sign for an enterprise trend further down the line.

As with any new technology, some common and new challenges are being tackled:

  • Cost of headsets : The required gear still carries a pretty hefty price of many hundreds of dollars.
  • Cost of supporting hardware: Quality VR experiences need a powerful and expensive workstation. This kind of quality is essential to reduce the lag between vision and physical movement and reduce motion sickness.
  • User motion sickness: Many people report symptoms similar to motion sickness, mostly caused by conflicting signals to the brain. There’s a lag in the signals between the artificial world being processed by the eyes and the real-world stimulus felt by the body. Various techniques are also being implemented to mitigate this. Allowing more time to get used to it also helps.
  • Immature application development: As with any new device and interface, maturing development, which makes the application easier, faster, and more accessible, takes time.

Consumer demand and Moore’s law will continue to do their thing and reduce hardware costs. New techniques will eliminate user issues. Also, known technologies like the Web, tweaked for this new interface and already powered by 3D APIs, might just speed up this revolution.

Hang on tight; the future is near!