VR: Empathy at scale

Virtual reality has introduced us to the possibility of being able to step into other peoples shoes, visit places we never thought possible and experience things all whilst sitting in the office but perhaps more interestingly it has given UX researchers a chance to immerse themselves into the perspective of their users — the chance of being able to reach previously unreachable groups, recreate specific scenarios or emulate specific attributes, all with a simple and recently inexpensive headset. This post explores how VR is powering the future of user research.

Using VR to Explore Immersive Storytelling

One of the most exciting aspects of VR is the way in which it is used for immersive storytelling. Powerful stories are already used in brand awareness to capture the attention of users but just imagine the recreation of these stories for product concepts in user testing where the response has the potential to reflect a more realistic reaction from participants.

The accessibility of these experiences becomes unrivalled. You are able to create a narrative around a product, allow the user to experience the actions and feed on their reactions straight back into your process. Yes, VR can be used for roller coasters, museums or Pornhub but I think the real trick is using it to measure the experiences of product iterations to get a better judgement of what makes peoples tick.

The Guardian created the above video, a VR experience attempting to capture what it is like being on the spectrum of autism at a family party. I used this film and a selection of others in an attempt to build a greater empathy with users with autism so that I could make better decisions moving forward in a certain project. The Party is a great example of how VR is used for immersive storytelling, I was taken away by how real the experience felt and these insights were instrumental in iterating my existing concepts without having contact with their intended users.

I’m not suggesting this is a replacement for user research, nothing can replace the relationships that are built through human contact. What I am implying is that in the correct context VR is another tool for us to utilise. Being able to share our ideas for interactions with users or even our own teams can help immerse others in the idea/problem space and hopefully result in better solutions through this increased empathy.

The final thing to keep in mind, however, is that with VR becoming a new tool for us to utilise it is important to consider the ethics and preparation that is needed for such a tool. VR could quite possibly be easily exploited in making others feel uncomfortable but is this ethically correct? No. We should provide comfort and transparency to others when using these new technologies.

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