Monday, July 2, 2012

11 Design Principles For Augmented Reality

Google officially revealed its "Glass" project to the world at their developer's conference this past week. Glass is a wearable computing product that intends to liberate people from their smartphone and other device obsessions by interacting with digital information through a pair of Google-enabled glasses. Their demo focused on the ability to capture and broadcast what's being seen through the glasses, which is a slight departure from past Glass concept work that showed a more traditional augmented reality display (think: navigation and messages projected on your glasses). No matter the direction that Google eventually goes, wearable computing and augmented reality are clearly back on the public stage. 

Like Google, I've also gone the way of augmented reality. I recently joined the Creative team at APX Labs, an MIT Media Lab sponsor that produces advanced technology solutions in the public and private sector. A/R and wearable computing is a space that APX has established itself in and I hope to make a significant impact in creating a meaningful product experience around it. So, like any disciplined designer, I've created a set of augmented reality design principles to be used for a solid foundation. I've included those principles here and hope you gain value from them if you're working with A/R technologies. 

I'm always open to collaborating or getting feedback, so contact me at if you're interested. I'm located in the Cambridge Innovation Center as of July 5. 

1. Improve reality, don't just add to it  
No one uses a system because of what it does. They use it because of what it does for them. If someone is going to use an augmented reality system, it must be obvious that it will improve their understanding, their ability to complete a task, or their overall enjoyment in the world. All the bells and whistles of technology are pointless if the personal benefit is not clear. A little trick for getting this right is to simply ask "what am I augmenting?". If you're not directly enhancing memory, perception, or another critical human attribute, then you may be headed down the wrong path. 

2. Be clear and simple 
An effective user interface clearly conveys what you are looking at, what you can do, and how to get back to where you were. Failing to deliver on any of these promises will only lead to feeling of frustration or confusion. You must accept the fact that people will not use your product if it is frustrating, no matter what its technical capabilities and specifications are. Simplicity must be a dominant priority.

3. Be predictable  
More than just simplicity, interfaces must also be highly predictable. What this means is that the interface gives users confidence of what will happen when they interact with it. Achieving this goal requires the consistent adherence to simple yet scalable rules and patterns throughout the interface. Use consistent strategies for organizing, aligning, and ordering interface elements. The end result is a system that is quicker to learn, easier to master, and results in less mistakes. 

4. Protect the field of view at all costs 
Augmented reality systems deal with sacred ground: a person's field of view. Anything that we add to the interface must provide significant benefit to offset the cost of the space that it is taking up. Unlike a standard mobile or web interface where excess clutter can sometimes be ignored, we run the risk of unnecessarily obscuring the line of sight of a user. For this reason, we must maintain strict discipline in avoiding excessive graphics in the field of view of the user. This requires the keen understanding of the priorities of our users, and more importantly, the discipline to remove or demote what is not. 

5. Be natural 
There are de facto standards and common patterns for interacting with objects in this world, whether they are natural or man-made. These standards drive our expectations and give us a foundation for interacting with new objects. Understand the patterns and carefully select the ones that best map to the expectations or mental models of your users. This is particularly critical with augmented reality systems that are introducing completely new paradigms while existing in the context of the natural world. With these systems, the understanding of and adherence to natural human gestures will be critical. 

6. Be invisible 
An effective augmented reality interface should appear to integrate naturally over the reality that it is displayed upon. Doing so will make the interface simply an enhancement upon the real world, instead of an artificial layer. It should be almost invisible. This is a difficult challenge but it requires an understanding of minimization of design elements, usage of proper visual perspective, and perhaps new visual techniques for mapping digital imagery onto the real world. For this reason, static interface elements (i.e. those that are in a fixed position in the user's field of view) should be minimized as they enforce the presence of an artificial layer in front of the user's face. 

7. Speak clearly 
Nothing is more confusing to a user than the failure to understand what is happening with a system that they are interacting with. A lack of feedback related to status, progress, or an error will only lead to frustrated users. Provide simple feedback, either in graphical or textual form (or both), that clearly conveys what has happened or what needs to be done. Remember that users are not engineers, so accurate technical description is less important than describing the simple "bottom line" implications of the status. 

8. Think about the big picture
Most cutting-edge user interface demonstrations provide excessive emphasis on what makes the interface unique and fail to demonstrate how their system integrates into the life of the user. They show off flashy headsets, glasses, and gloves without demonstrating how the user will transition into and out of these peripheral interfaces. Without design of these transitions, these products will never amount to anything more than cool demos. Avoid this trap by thinking holistically your system. In other words, design the ecosystem that surrounds you product and the chances for adoption will dramatically increase. Think through the workflows that will likely occur across interface menus and features and ensure that they are as efficient as possible. More on this topic here.

9. Don't waste color 
Colors in an interface can convey a great deal of meaning. They can highlight, draw attention to an alert, or convey that a feature is disabled. Used correctly, colors can make an interface more effective in its ability to help users complete their task. Conversely, over-abundance of color throughout the interface will only lead to confusion or obscurity of built-in meanings of colors. Sparse usage of color is particularly important in an augmented reality system where the field of view is saturated with an abundance of ever-changing colors. Use color only to draw the attention of the user, not to satisfy a pleasing color palette. 

10. Be social 
Today's technologies are increasingly focused in connecting people, and augmented reality should be no exception. Seek out opportunities to integrate communication, collaboration, and information sharing directly into the product experience. This approach will result in a more valued and seamless user experience and also open up the door for increased user adoption through network effects. 

11. Be flexible
With screen space at a premium, creators of augmented reality systems run the risk of providing an overwhelming product every experience. Forget trying to please everyone. Provide only the core features that you know are critical to the user base, and then enable an appropriate level of flexibility on top of it. Everyone will end up satisfied with their own tailored experience. 


  1. Nice work. Any comments on the physical form of wearable computers?

    1. thanks! I have many thoughts on this topic in particular which I'll make a point to write about soon. The short answer is that I believe that natural surfaces, gestures, and other real-world paradigms should be leveraged wherever possible. The implication that has on the physical form of wearable computing is that I believe putting display and interface technologies into physical objects that we're already wearing or carrying, such as clothing or watches or even rings. I can definitely see many opportunities for glasses-based displays, especially for focus tasks where someone puts the glasses on to complete an activity. However, I hesitate to commit to a future where everyone is wearing AR glasses at all times - or maybe that's just wishful thinking. thanks again for the comment and I'll be sure to address it further in the near future.

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