To solve this issue, we needed to tackle both the technological issue as well as the user experience walking through the training. What objects are necessary to include in the VR environment? How do we properly guide a new trainee in this process?
So we first did a thorough contextual inquiry with the lab researcher Brenda to probe into the equipment use process, record the manipulations, and broke them down into two lists: a list of key actions and another list for the interactable objects.
Interactable objects to include in the scene.
By further discussing the details of the training process with the lab researchers, we were able to specify the focus of this project:
The important part of this project is to help understand the process but not achieve step accuracy.
This finding informed our team to focus on showing the steps clearly, and to look for equipment that can best support this goal.
Through observing and interviewing the lab researchers, I was able to nail down the goal for me as a UX specialist as well --
To create a training experience that enables a new trainee to learn the key steps to use the Cryo-EM equipment effectively in VR.
Therefore as my teammates took charge of modeling the lab environment in Maya and Unreal Engine 4, I did secondary research to help myself understand current VR training practices available and brainstorm viable solutions.
Three critical criteria that led me throughout the market research process were created through communicating with the lab researchers and the sponsor:
1. budget required for the solution
2. adoption rate by the market
3. our team's experience level as of development
From research, I found that many simulation games provided good examples in terms of engaging users and the level of interaction heaviness was appropriate for our team to develop in one semester. So I dived deeper into these games to understand what features make a simulation process easy to digest. I did this by looking at user reviews and talking to people with simulator experience.
It turned out that short animations showing different steps of a process can most effectively help a user understand what to do and memorize a short interaction. A quiz, on the other hand, is a good way to help a user connect the dots.
Recalling my main goal to help new researchers learn the lab procedure easily, I sketched some early ideas to capture the research insights.
At this stage with the hardware research insights from my teammates, we were able to decide the platform to use: the HTC VIVE headmount.
The environment was created as a cubic room with the lab equipment on a table in the center of a user's view, a heads-up display (HUD) on the front wall giving user tasks (i.e. the key actions of the procedure) to complete, and a controllable video showing standard practices on the left.
I prototyped the task interfaces in higher-fidelity using Figma to communicate the ideas with the team and our sponsor.
I got some really valuable insights from the feedback sessions and playing with the VIVE.
One main issue was that if we had the task interface as a static menu on the HUD, the user would have to always look in a certain direction to make it work, and the video on the sidewall might make the process more movement-heavy --
in a 3D virtual space the ergonomics factors should always be a top consideration.
How to simplify the design so that users can learn the process easily with only one focus? Due to a limited time left for the development squad, we decided to integrate the video tutorial onto the wall of the environment, and then have the task interface collapsed in a floating menu that the user could open and close as they wished. In this way we made sure that users had the physical comfort and could focus on the most important thing -- learning the process from the video -- effortlessly.
Design the space and flow.
Testing was one of the most important parts of this project’s process. Our team was able to develop the environment and tested it with 10 students from our assistance researcher Brenda’s lab. The test was consisted of a pre-test survey about tester’s experience with Cryo-EM lab, a list of tasks to go through the key steps, and a post-test survey about how did tester feel about VR simulation compared to the actual one.
The user tests revealed places we could improve -- the video could be splited into smaller pieces to better present different steps, and we could use more cues to guide users through the process either in visual or audio.
Our team successfully built the experience by understanding the process, modeling, programming and testing. We delivered the product to our sponsor with documentation of design rationale, tech specs and recommended next steps. The project carried on and received a $360,000 grant from the National Institute of Health later in 2018.
CryoVR is a very unique project for me. I was completely lost at the beginning of the process since there were too many new things to learn -- either understanding a biological lab process or designing a VR experience.
Fortunately I can reach for help from many people around me -- my UX instructors, friends in related majors, and the knowledgable internet. In this way I gradually learned how to apply the design principles I learned from my previous experiences -- they were mostly about building web/ mobile app interfaces.
The deeper I dived into the problems through research, the more I realized that the fundamental design principles are universal. For instance, the information should lay out in proper hierarchy (the most interaction-heavy area is the table within an arm's reach of the user, and the other secondary components stayed further away or at a higher eye level), and content needs to be accessible (a fixed HUD menu burdens a user with extra movements).
Therefore this experience had me rethink what I learned as a designer from a ground level and encouraged me to try out different mediums to solve real-life problems.
Growth: the design principles are universal.