Interviews with XR Designers: Aleatha Singleton
June 17 2021
Name: Aleatha Singleton
Working At: Freelance UX for XR consulting, teaching and design at pintsizedrobotninja
Prior XR Designer Role: Immersive Tech UX Design Lead at a fortune 10 Company
Check out Aleatha's Free On-Demand workshop: UX for XR: From one Designer to Another
How was your transition from traditional to XR design?
My last traditional UX design role was at an oil & gas company, working to improve their digital manufacturing experiences.
I’ve been interested in emerging technology and future tech for as long as I can remember. That’s one of the reasons I got into design in the first place in the 90s when I started to teach myself to design for the web. It was still emerging at that point and was still working its way up into the Plateau of Productivity on the Gartner’s annual Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies report.
So of course, when VR came out in the 90s I was interested. It didn’t get far at that point because of the technological limitations at the time.
When it showed back up on the scene many years later with the Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign I was bought in. I didn’t have the money for the headset, but I did see the value and potential of the modern advances in VR with the Oculus prototype and its ability to make you feel like you were somewhere else.
At this point I had been in a tech slump, feeling like I was stuck designing for the same technology platform I had been since the 90s, but this new advancement reignited my emerging tech flame and I quickly realized I didn’t want to fall behind again.
How did you start learning about XR?
I didn’t see much content out there for helping UX designers learn - everything was too technical and I didn’t have any of the hardware and software needed to start learning. So, I wasn’t able to start right away.
I spent a few years studying sci-fi interfaces and future tech ethics, which scratched the emerging tech itch for a little while. I also gained some valuable knowledge and skills from that exercise that still helps me now.
Then technology started to improve and become more accessible, and I had a laptop that could support Unity, so I downloaded it and started doing tutorials for the Google Cardboard since I still couldn’t afford a VR headset or gaming machine.
“I quickly found a big gap in the space since the training doesn’t focus on UX design from a designer’s perspective. Everything requires you to code in Unity and speaks from a developer perspective.”
In my free time, I conducted extensive human-centered R&D in order to learn — or if they didn’t exist, come up with my own — UX best practices for augmented and virtual reality and other emerging tech so that I would be able to transition into the space and more effectively advocate its early adoption.
Also, game development has a heavy influence on VR development, so understanding how the NPC (non-playable characters) models behave in certain situations, and what interactions are easy or hard to figure out, game mechanics - and so much more - will give you a better understanding of how to design quality immersive experiences. So, I started gaming heavily and studying the designs of the games to pick up on these patterns.
I also scoured the internet for articles other people have written about their experience designing for VR, and some of them were kind enough to share templates for storyboarding for VR.
What was you first professional role in XR and how did you land it
Usually for traditional UX jobs, I show a pretty portfolio and tell the story of the design and the challenges faced.
Since I had nothing to show, I had to take a different approach.
A group of people in the same company started working in VR. As soon as I found out, I wanted in and quickly signed up for a side project they had set up. The experience of working together on a couple of side projects and the design artifacts that came out of that became my portfolio and case study with them.
Later those same people stood up a team and brought me over as their UX designer.
Now, all of my work is under NDA, so I still can’t show a portfolio so I have to prove myself in other ways through networking, side projects and so forth. As I am super introverted so that’s a feat in and of itself.
I also found that writing about my learning experiences has been a great help in furthering not only my own career goals but is helping others learn and grow as well. That’s the best part. Helping others and advancing UX in the field.
How does your XR Design work look right now?
At the start of each project with a different team, I’ll talk to them and see how they work and then ideate with them on how we can effectively work together. I work with them to adapt to their systems and don’t try to force them into a box I’ve created for a set process that must be followed. That also makes them more willing to adapt with me where needed. Since I’m not as familiar with all of the technical possibilities and the development efforts for XR as I am with traditional 2D, I can’t confidently push back when they say something’s not possible like I could then. I have to take their word for it and ask lots of questions.
If I’m embedded in the team as a designer working with developers, I will meet with them regularly, and have daily conversations as needed.
I’ll give them lots of sketches, storyboards, flow diagrams, and video clips of existing examples.
If I’m making edits to something they’ve built, I’ll grab screenshots and mark them up or make new sketches/storyboards.
For design reviews, I’ll record myself walking through the experience and talking over it with my comments or I’ll dig through Unity scenario and grab screenshots from the scenes.
If the team is using a 3rd-party vendor and I’m consulting, it depends on the level of involvement they want. Preferably I’m working the same way as if I’m embedded, but more often I’m reviewing things after they’re built and giving more feedback that way. So lots more walkthrough recordings and marked up screenshots.
"I’ve been very fortunate that the teams I’ve been on don’t expect me to code in Unity. They hire me for my UX and interaction design skills - not my development or visual design skills."
Looking to get started with XR Design? Download our Interaction Design and Prototyping for XR course syllabus:
What was the hardest part and how did you overcome it?
The biggest barrier of entry is that there are no established design tools for wireframing and rapid prototyping in XR for designers. Designers have to learn to develop in Unity if they want to prototype.
Teams that understand the need for UX still require experience with game engines and other creation tools instead of working with designers in their current toolsets.
There are some no-code solutions out there, but they’re still being designed through the lens of developers who use game engines instead of through the lens of designers and the tools they’re used to. We have a steep learning curve for those who don’t have experience with 3D creation tools or gaming engines. That’s the case for most designers.
There also aren’t many resources available to teach UX for XR from a UX designer’s perspective, so people trying to transition into the space have to spend a lot of time searching the Internet to glean information from individual articles wherever they can find them.
That’s one of the main reasons I started writing and publishing my UX best practices Medium blog. I talk about the things others aren’t talking about.
Does XR design follow the same processes as traditional UX Design? How are they different?
Everything we already do for web, mobile and desktop UX design is still relevant when designing immersive experiences. The process still includes discovery, ideation, prototyping, testing, building and iteration.
The goal is also the same, which is to design delightful and compelling experiences that make people’s lives better.
However, the platform is completely different.
Instead of designing for 2D screens with a limited screen size, we’re designing for another dimension in which 3D spaces and the world around us are the canvas. This means we have to shift our mindset to start thinking in 360-degree, three dimensional spaces.
Unlike with 2D experiences where you can control what the user sees when, with 3D experiences, you have to take into account that the user may look anywhere at any time. This is where designing for print or for real space - such as installations and exhibits - are very relevant skills for creating virtual spatial designs and experiences.
For research, you’re going to have to use more than just interviews as a method of gaining knowledge. You’re going to need more ethnographic studies and observations to be able to recreate worlds or make them believable for people.
Then for usability testing, it depends on the platform. If you’re researching MR or AR, it’s best to test in the field where they will be working or living so you can also identify any ecological, technical or connectivity issues you hadn’t considered before. If you don’t have access to that environment you can still emulate it in VR, but it’s not going to be as effective.
For VR usability testing, your setup, prep and supplies are going to be different. Usually, if facilitators are taking notes, they type their notes in a computer, but for usability testing in VR, you want to take paper notes. This is because when people are in a headset and they hear typing, it can be disconcerting. They can’t see you so you need an extra level of caution for trust and comfort. You’ll also need a safety spotter to make sure they don’t run into things or trip over cords since they’re most likely brand new to VR.
And the biggest difference for usability testing in VR is that you’ll want cold water and vomit bags on hand. Hopefully your experience has been mitigated beforehand, but some teams have to learn the hard way that motion sickness is a real thing that needs to be considered in virtual environments.
What Are Your Favorite XR Tools and Suggestions?
I do a lot more storyboarding and sketching than I ever did as a 2D designer. I can still use Adobe XD or something similar to wireframe UI elements, but since I’m spending most of my time designing the entire experience, I storyboard most of the time.
I did workflows before, but they’re much more important for 3D experiences since inconsistencies stick out a lot more and can become confusing for new users. So workflows and up-front global designs help you make sure you’re designing a consistent experience throughout.
I also use iMovie a lot, which is something I never did before. That’s how I scrub the walkthrough recordings for video clips.
Some cool tools that let you storyboard in VR that you can check out are:
Sketchbox 3D and Microsoft Maquette. They both let you storyboard and create sequential scenes you can walk through. Maquette is single-player, but Sketchbox is multiplayer so you can have meetings there and talk about designs with your team. Maquette also lets you emulate HoloLens.
If you gave one piece of advice to up and coming XR designers, what would it be?
I would definitely recommend the career path. Even if there aren’t a lot of jobs out there right now, be patient and keep learning.
“As the industry grows, the demand for designers will grow. If you start now, you can be on the front end of that movement instead of trying to play catch-up later.”
And start playing video games and VR experiences. Seriously. Study them. Learn what works and doesn’t work so you have a brain cache of knowledge when you’re ready to start working. Don’t just think about the interface. Think about the NPC behaviors, hardware and controllers as well.
Where Can People Find You?
Let me know.