3. What does AR mean for UX designers?
There’s no doubt that specialized applications of AR will continue to be developed to increase the efficiency and reliability with which professional tasks can be performed. For example, AR creates opportunities for the reduction of information overload in the time-sensitive operations of military personnel, surgeons, and engineers. In these use cases, AR can be used to more effectively direct the attention of human operators and reduce human error.
However, the impact that AR will have on mass market consumer applications is less certain. In principle, the future applications of AR are only limited by, on the one hand, the imagination and creativity of designers and developers, and on the other hand, how consumer appetites and attitudes towards augmented experiences are formed.
I asked Sara Vilas Santiago, Designlab’s in-house UX curriculum supremo, for her thoughts.
“AR uptake will start with changes in things that are very functional, like those Google Translate and IKEA apps. From there it’s up to designers to use AR to take the next step in experiences – making the digital more ‘real’.
“To take an analogy, texting via SMS was great, but then WhatsApp made the experience easier, cheaper, and more real-time. You can see who is online, you can send pictures, send videos, have video calls… I think getting closer to the ‘real thing’ in digital experiences can always win.
“But as designers we have to understand the need to do it properly – avoiding the creation of awkward experiences. It’s important to understand human psychology when it comes to new technologies, just as Steve Jobs understood that with the iPhone and iPad people didn’t really need a Star Trek-style device, but instead something that offered rich experiences that we could use naturally with our hands and in our everyday lives.”
One of the more urgent tasks facing designers and developers is therefore to think about and influence the overall user experience of AR as a technology.
The understandable desire in each sector to be first to market with an AR product risks rushing out poorly-engineered AR experiences, with predictable and avoidable scandals around leaky privacy and security measures or even applications that cause harm or inconvenience by conveying unreliable instructions or information.
Around 40% of mobile apps are uninstalled within an hour of initial installation. For AR apps to be successful, they must above all establish trust with the user, and then quickly prove their usefulness. The first impressions of AR that the industry makes on consumers could be the difference between a step change in how we interact with smart technology, or a repeat of the market failure of Google Glass.
4. The $162bn question: will people use it?
Business Insider predicts that the AR market will be worth $162bn within a few years. Obviously, this depends on user uptake, and one of the questions that has been asked of AR in the past is whether it meets any real user need. Apps like Pokémon Go have demonstrated AR’s novelty value and potential for fun. But can it stand the test of time in more serious use cases?
Does AR add enough value to the user experience?
When it comes to applications like measuring up a room for your new IKEA furniture, there are two questions: first, do people care enough to use an app – i.e., does it add enough value to justify the user’s perception of extra effort? And second, will people trust the technology to deliver on its promises – for example, will they trust the app’s furniture measurements, or will they end up checking it for themselves with a tape measure anyway?
It’s tough to predict what consumer reaction will be like. But one thing is sure: whatever the eventual uptake, a crucial factor will be the quality of apps and ideas generated by designers and developers. A product that hits the market in an already robust and reliable form could make the difference between failure and long-term success.
Can designers understand user needs in the AR space?
The opportunities and challenges for UX designers will focus around designing experiences that are delightful and functional for consumers that initially don’t know what they want. Most users don’t yet have an understanding of what AR is, what they want from it, or how it could benefit them.
UX designers will have an important role in shaping those expectations, and in establishing beneficial and valuable products. Novelty is never enough. Historically, Apple has been expert in this kind of creative space – the iPod's success was an example of how the company understood the our desires as users (to carry a whole music collection in our pocket) before most of us were aware that we had that desire at all.
Will developers accommodate established user preferences for screen-based interaction?
Another thing to consider is how surprisingly little the basic format of human-computer interaction has changed over the past 50 years. We still primarily interact with screen interfaces through clicks and keyboards. The main change in that time has been the fact that screens now allow us to touch them (though we still use keyboard and mouse about half the time).
A likely reason for the failure of wearable AR applications like Google Glass, which came to market in 2014 and was discontinued within 2 years, is the fact that it required a radical shift not only in the way users were consuming information, but also in the devices through which that information was being delivered.
AR stands the greatest chance of consumer uptake and market success where it accommodates and augments device experiences that people already favor – i.e., smartphones, tablets, and laptops. If we start asking people to wear special glasses or to mount phones on their faces in purpose-built cradles, the chances are that consumers will simply reject that change as being too big a step.
Successful AR will perhaps not represent a change in how we interact with machines, so much as a change in the way they present information to us.
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