Why and how to use virtual reality in UX research

February 22, 2023
When used with proper consideration, VR can be a fantastic tool in the researcher’s toolkit.

A core component of UX research is prototype testing and understanding users’ natural responses. However, challenges often exist, such as testing an unfinished prototype or applying methodologies that could limit natural user behaviour. We’ve covered integrating virtual reality (VR) as an emerging trend in healthcare, but VR can also help overcome challenges in user experience (UX) research, as it provides an opportunity to create a virtual version of the prototype and simulate the context of its use. This could improve user research in multiple ways, such as:

  • Shortened product timeline: Large-scale and complex prototypes (e.g., medical devices, aviation design) often require high costs and time to develop, prolonging the testing process. In that case, there may be an opportunity to conduct testing with a virtual prototype that simulates end features. This allows testing to be done more quickly and shortens the product’s time-to-market.
  • Improved safety: Some products may have safety risks in their use (e.g., semi-autonomous cars). Testing with a virtual simulation allows the user to freely interact with the product while being safeguarded against the possibility of being hurt. Furthermore, unsafe use cases can be identified to improve the product’s safety.
  • Uncover natural behaviour: A common UX research technique is to apply scenario-based testing to prompt the participant to imagine the context of use. Usability testing, interviews, surveys, etc., often isolate the participant from the natural environment where they would interact with the product (e.g., by bringing the participant into a lab). VR counters this by immersing the participant in a virtual replica of the natural environment, promoting natural behaviour.

5 things to consider when using virtual reality in UX research

Onboarding: Many people have little experience in a VR environment. As a result, participants may not be familiar with the technology and may be prone to novelty effects. This could detract from the experience. Allow extra time before testing to familiarise participants with the virtual environment and overcome novelty effects.


Cybersickness: Some participants may become disoriented in a VR environment due to feeling a disconnect between experiencing motion in the virtual world and the real world. Let the participants know beforehand and consider incorporating breaks during sessions.


Data collection: Data collection becomes trickier as the participant is immersed in a different environment than the researcher. To ensure that essential data is not missed, create logs of the participant’s actions in the VR environment (e.g., interaction with virtual items, eye gaze) to get a clearer sense of the participant’s behaviour in the virtual world.


Environment design: Creating a VR environment involves significant programming and 3D design skills and is likely beyond a UX researcher’s skillset. This may open opportunities to collaborate with VR design or game development companies to create these environments.


Behaviour realism: When designing VR environments for UX, consider how realistic the environment is for the user. For instance, when simulating a home, incorporate elements of a typical home (toaster, couch) but don’t design the home as a mansion or other highly specific type of space. Otherwise, the participant’s behaviour in the VR world becomes applicable only to the VR environment.


Despite these limitations, incorporating VR may open a novel direction for overcoming common challenges in UX research. When used with proper consideration, VR can be a fantastic tool in the researcher’s toolkit.


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