Design for spatial user interfaces: Creating immersive experiences in three-dimensional space

Bora
5 min readJun 7, 2023

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Photograph of a man using Apple’s new VR/AR headset Vision Pro
Vision Pro, Apple

In our increasingly digital world, spatial user interfaces have emerged as powerful tools for designing immersive experiences. With virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) technologies becoming more accessible, designers have a unique opportunity to craft interactions and environments in three-dimensional space.

Let’s explore the principles, challenges, and techniques in designing spatial user interfaces, and get insights into creating captivating experiences that bridge the physical and digital realms. Learn how to design great interfaces for spatial computing apps.

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Understand user needs and tasks

Before you start designing and implementing your spatial user interface and visualization, you must understand your users, what they want to achieve, and how they will use your system. You can conduct user research, interviews, surveys, or observations to gather information about your user needs and tasks. You should also define your system's goals, scenarios, and requirements based on your user research.

Understanding Spatial User Interfaces

Spatial user interfaces go beyond traditional two-dimensional interfaces by leveraging the depth and immersion provided by VR, AR, and MR. These interfaces enable users to interact with digital content naturally and intuitively, blurring the lines between the real and virtual worlds. By understanding the capabilities and nuances of each technology, designers can unlock the potential to revolutionize various fields, including gaming, education, healthcare, and more.

Showing visionOS and its digital menu of Apple’s new VR/AR headset Vision Pro, Apple
Vision Pro, Apple

Design Principles for Spatial User Interfaces

Designing effective spatial user interfaces requires a deep understanding of the unique principles. One of the critical considerations is the concept of depth, where the ability to perceive distance and scale accurately is crucial. Designers must also consider perspective, ensuring that users’ viewpoints align with their expectations and natural human perception.

User-centered design remains paramount in spatial user interface design. Iterative testing and user feedback collection help refine the interface and make it more intuitive and user-friendly. Interaction techniques like gestural input, gaze tracking, and spatial sound should be carefully designed to create seamless and natural interactions, reducing cognitive load and maximizing immersion.

In this video from Apple, discover the fundamentals of spatial design. Learn how to design with depth, scale, windows, and immersion, and apply best practices for creating comfortable, human-centered experiences that transform reality. Find out how you can use these spatial design principles to extend your existing app or bring a new idea to life.

Creating Immersive Experiences

The true power of spatial user interfaces lies in their ability to transport users to new worlds and create truly immersive experiences. By harnessing elements such as storytelling, audio, and haptics, designers can amplify the emotional impact of their interfaces. Effective sound and haptic feedback can enhance presence and create a more convincing and engaging environment.

Case studies and examples from various industries highlight successful applications of spatial user interfaces. From interactive architectural walkthroughs to educational simulations, the possibilities are vast. The key is to balance the technology’s potential with the user’s needs and desires, ensuring that the experience is not only immersive but also meaningful and purposeful.

Learn how to design significant interactions for eyes and hands. Apple shares the design principles for spatial input explores best practices around input methods and helps you create spatial experiences that are comfortable, intuitive, and satisfying.

Navigating Challenges and Constraints

Designing for spatial user interfaces presents unique challenges and constraints. Technical limitations, such as processing power and graphical fidelity, must be considered to provide smooth and realistic experiences. Moreover, designers must be mindful of potential motion sickness in VR and AR, employing techniques like smooth locomotion and comfortable interaction paradigms to minimize discomfort.

Addressing ethical and inclusive design is crucial in this emerging field. Accessibility considerations should be integrated into the design process to ensure that spatial user interfaces are available to users with diverse abilities. Privacy concerns and responsible data handling practices must be adhered to, as the immersive nature of these interfaces can blur the line between the virtual and real worlds.

Designing for spatial user interfaces opens up a world of possibilities for creating immersive and transformative experiences. By understanding the principles, harnessing the potential of technology, and addressing challenges responsibly, designers can shape the future of human-computer interaction. Whether it’s exploring new realms in gaming, revolutionizing education, or improving healthcare outcomes, the potential impact of spatial user interfaces is immense.

We should continue experimenting, iterating, learning from each other, and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in spatial design. We can create experiences that captivate and enrich users' lives by embracing ethical and inclusive practices.

As we continue to push the boundaries of technology and design, let us remember the importance of putting the user at the center of our creations. By considering their needs, preferences, and limitations, we can create spatial user interfaces that are visually stunning but also intuitive and accessible.

Photograph of a woman using Apple’s new VR/AR headset Vision Pro and having a online meeting
Vision Pro, Apple

The future holds immense potential for spatial user interfaces, with advancements in hardware, software, and interaction paradigms constantly unfolding. By embracing the principles, techniques, and ethical considerations, we can design experiences that transport users to new dimensions, engage their senses, and leave a lasting impact.

So, let your creativity soar and reshape how we interact and perceive the world around us.

— Thanks for reading.

I’m Bora, an independent designer exploring practical design knowledge, principles, design thinking frameworks, cognitive biases, and how to use design for good.

As designers, by expanding our knowledge, we can increase our impact.

Join me as we learn, share, and grow together.

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Bora

Designer with 17+ years of experience. Writing about practical design knowledge, principles and frameworks. 🌱