12 enriching weeks, 2 Inclusive VR projects, 1 side project, 1 Inclusive design workshop
In summer of 2018, I joined Microsoft's Mixed Reality at Work team as a UX design intern. My project was to find virtual reality opportunities for the aging community. I designed and prototyped a VR game that helps improve working and spatial memory for seniors while giving them the opportunity to explore worlds that might not be accessible to them otherwise.
Find VR opportunities to prevent social and emotional exclusion in the aging community by empathetic problem solving, research, prototyping and user testing solutions.
This was my first time building and designing an end-to-end VR experience. I ramped up on a whole new set of processes and technology for virtual reality and conducted a full participatory, and inclusive design process.
I started the project by diving deep into research journals and articles to understand the challenges seniors face due to age and ramp up on the current VR space.
What mismatches cause exclusion in the aging community?
“Older people — are generally defined according to a range of characteristics such as: chronological age, change in social role and changes in functional abilities”. Challenges that come with age become increasingly significant after 60 years of age.
All of these challenges such as decline in vision, hearing, motor control lead to depression, anxiety and a general decline in mental well-being for the elderly. One of the biggest challenges they face is decline in their short term and prospective memory.
Is VR the right tool to remedy the exclusions this community faces?
An in-depth study conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland showed an 8.8% improvement in recall accuracy using VR headsets.
VR can help train motor and cognitive skills. The elderly can not only improve their skills, but also build new skills with training.
Majority of existing VR experiences for elderly are passive, with no interactivity. However, ‘Serious games’ in the elderly people can target improvements in areas such as memory, attention and concentration, mental speed and flexibility.
Study shows that playing a 3D video game designed to train multi-tasking abilities is able to bring seniors’ performance at the level of people 20 years old in only 1 month of training.
Infact, there is a national tournament for Wii bowling for elderly. Part of the appeal for Wii bowling comes with the ease of use. Seniors can just wave a hand and pick up a heavy ball – something they might not be able to do in real life any longer.
In order to conduct a participatory design process, I partnered with a senior living home in Seattle. I conducted a user study followed by a quick survey to understand the unique constraints that might come with this user base and their comfort with VR.
I also volunteered at the senior living home every sunday to really understand their daily activities and interactions.
What are the user's seeking?
Purpose and meaning
“It would be good if we could do more demanding/meaningful things and engage in meaningful interactions”
“I'd like the experience if it was more explorative, if the fish went into a cave and I couldn't follow them. What's behind this rock?
“If I could play the game with someone it would be more fun”
What friction did the user face?
It took users 5-6 minutes at least to navigate their way through the game. Even after the entire session most of them couldn’t figure out the aim of the game.
The UI was overwhelming. There were multiple UI bubbles around them while they were playing the game and the users found it hard to multi-task.
Users didn’t find the controller intuitive. It took them some time to get used to how to hold the controllers right in order to press the trigger button.
Informed by the research, I created a set of guidelines and customer promises to help define and guide the experience I create.
Less is more
To reduce cognitive overload and make intuitive obvious interactions.
Inclusive and personal
To make sure that the game is optimized to be at the level that the user is, ie. it is easy to learn but fun to master.
To provide clear feedback on progress and reminders of goals. Create a balance between familiar and simple.
Leverage emotional connection
To add delight, and fun to the experience.
I created a VR game called Impressions that aims at improving working and spatial memory for elderly while giving them an interactive exploratory experience.
The games objective is to recall and find objects in various interactive locations. The faster the player is at finding objects, the better the score would be to unlock hidden treasures.
Structure and flow
I iterated through game plays, rewards and userflows. To understand size, field of view and depth in VR, I created lo-fi mockups and tested them using Go pro VR player and Maquette.
To test my ideas and iterate on them quickly, I leveraged existing Windows Mixed reality environments – Cliffhouse and Skyloft. I placed objects in those environments and tested the game play with seniors at the senior living home.
Elizabet spent 25 minutes exploring the cliffhouse. She moved furniture, learnt how to teleport, added holograms. She was interested in a simple yet interactive environment.
Users like the game play because it was a mental challenge rather than a physical one. For a beginners levels, 3-4 objects is a good starting point for the game.
Create bigger buttons and tapping areas since the user base has declining motor dexterity. There is also a need of indications or small arrows that nudge the user to turn in a certain direction if needed.
To create and design the environment and prototype the game, I explored various different VR prototyping tools. I chose to design and prototype the game in Maquette based on the time, scope of project and skills I had.
The game starts in a home environment from where the user can access different interactive worlds to explore. The game has three different difficulty levels to start with to be inclusive to all users engagement levels. The home environment is simple and familiar. The focus was to reduce cognitive load for the user and make them feel comfortable as they get used to the VR experience.
The first level is called the Boat house. It is familiar yet different, making it ideal for a beginner level.
Great place! I could probably spend hours in here.
It is realistic, immersive! You feel you are there. You can rotate and go behind objects and look at it from all sides.
Love that I can jump to the next level and not have to climb the staircase. This is why you can be in VR.
Given our aging population, the time to start designing for this demographic is now. VR is one of the most exciting technologies disrupting the healthcare industry. I have seen firsthand what joy and emotion VR experiences can bring about in seniors. With more dedicated research, VR can become a valuable and accessible addition to the healthcare world.
Adding multiplayer and collaboration features in the game. Players could play against each other, or one player can hide objects and the second player has to find them.
Dive deep into how we can make VR more inclusive for the elderly through accessible input options .
Finding answers to questions such as How does spatial sound work with a population with declining hearing? How is it affected by hearing aids?
During the internship, I also participated in the annual hackathon as part of the Inclusive hiring team. I helped to create a virtual reality app to help neurodiverse individuals prepare for job interviews, from UX flow through to visuals for the pitch video.
My team and project won third place in the Inclusive Design Challenge at the Hackathon.
My manager and mentor gave me a fun, more tangible design challenge my first day – to find 100 ways to use a 3 in 1 avocado cutter. I presented my solution in a printed comic strip style.
I had the opportunity to learn the inclusive design process from my amazing manager, Sogol Malekzadeh. At the end of the internship, I conducted a workshop on inclusive design thinking and process for my fellow design interns.
Shout out to my manager, mentor, and team. I had the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with brilliant minds. Under the guidance of my manager and mentor, I ramped up on a completely new set of design guidelines and processes for the VR space and inclusive design, and also learned how to scope a project and conduct user studies.
Designing an inclusive VR experience pushed me to think about many different facets of the user experience such as accessibility in VR, optimal text readability, environment design, storytelling and hardware design. Through my work during the internship, I learnt how to design with a broader and more deliberate sense of empathy and impact.
Interested in learning more about my work and experience at Microsoft? I gave a short presentation on it.See the presentation