5 lessons from YouTube VR on adapting your app for virtual reality

4 min read
Jeff Humble
  •  Jul 31, 2017
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Picture the scene. It’s a cold, grey afternoon at CareerFoundry HQ. Slowly but surely, one by one, the team stops what they’re doing and turns to look at Martin, the COO, who is completely oblivious to his new-found attention.

He looks more relaxed than he has in 3-and-half years, completely reclined in his chair, and lost in the Google Daydream—the virtual reality device powered by any VR-ready (i.e. uber-high-resolution) smartphone. We can only presume he’s exploring a virtual beach in the Bahamas.

Related: How to get started with VR interface design

It’s amazing that this kind of tech is now available as an affordable consumer product. Even so, many people haven’t experienced it and it hasn’t skyrocketed as many had hoped. Does this mean it’s not going to take off, or that we’ve simply got more time to prepare?

Last September—in 2016—Google opened up the Play Store for new third-party VR apps, and some companies have already ported their apps to VR; Google-owned YouTube of course being one of the notable ones, and the app I’m going to look at today as my “best practice” inspiration.

YouTube’s expert transition from 2D to VR is no surprise. YouTube has more than 1 billion users. Over 50% of the millions of hours of video watched each day is via mobile, according to their stats page. This makes the YouTube app one of the most successful apps to date.

How do you continue the success of an established hit into a new realm like virtual reality?

Here are my top 5 valuable lessons from YouTube that you can apply to the design of any VR app.

Offer the user a meal, not a snack

VR apps are so immersive that they require a deeper narrative to match that immersion. Mobile apps tend to be very snackable in nature, and users are often pulled out of the experience by the outside world or notifications from other apps. VR is an uninterrupted transformative experience, and because of this, it deserves to have all of the interactions that your app can offer.

You’re going to be getting fewer, more immersive visits than in mobile, so make sure you’re providing a narrative that matches that behavior. Give them the depth they’re searching for, and they’ll keep coming back to your app.

YouTube VR creates the narrative through smart suggestions of viewable content. The VR app continues the practice of showing the queue for what’s playing next, and it’s always smartly selected content. Once I picked a video from the home screen, I found myself navigating based on these “up next” suggestions the first few times I used the app.

“Give VR users the depth they’re search for, and they’ll come back.”

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Eventually I found a few VR content creators that I followed, and I relied less on the smart suggestions. The narrative that YouTube creates is based on your viewing history, so the content suggestions improve with each session. Content suggestions are an excellent way to create a narrative in cinematic apps, and YouTube continues to do a great a job at content suggestion.

Give the user control at all times

You’re offering your user a world of new experiences. And along with this new freedom, you must also offer control. Instead of dropping them down a rabbit hole, guide them through the experience like a cheshire cat. The negative effects of jarring the user into unplanned environments can actually cause digital motion sickness (known as cybersickness).

Google published their VR design principles for their Cardboard platform based on some early testing they did in the VR space. One of their first points was that VR environments can be very immersive, so it’s important to always give the user control.

While cinematic experiences will be more passive, this doesn’t mean the user is on autopilot. Don’t treat the user like a mere observer.Twitter Logo Instead think of them as an explorer—and like any explorer, they’re going to need the proper controls to navigate this new reality.

“Think of VR users as explorers and give them proper controls to navigate.”

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The sheer responsiveness of the controls in the YouTube VR app help give the user control. Every menu item jumps to attention when you point at it, and it fades into a translucent state when you move the pointer away. At any point in the viewing, you can easily pull up the main menu without disturbing what you’re watching by clicking the remote.

Simultaneous viewing and browsing is important in cinematic apps as it gives the continuous experience we spoke of before, as well as the feeling of control. The menu pops up on a 2-dimensional plane in the space between you and the 360 video, and allows you the same view as the home screen.

Even when videos are loading, they always give you controls and info around the current video in a floating panel that sits in your peripheral view. The controls are also minimal and quickly dismiss if no action is taken during a video. VR can be very disorienting, and the responsiveness of the controls gives the user a north star with which to guide their viewing experience.

Showcase your legacy content in inspiring ways

While we normally think of VR apps working in a 3-dimensional space, sometimes it can be more effective to showcase content in a 2-dimensional space. In fact, Google’s research shows that projected 2-dimensional content is the most efficient way to consume content in VR.

Try showcasing your 2-dimensional content, like text and images, in a well designed 3D space so that users feels like they’re experiencing the content in a new and novel way. If you’re displaying lots of different types of content like YouTube, make sure the VR content is clearly labeled and ranked higher than less interactive content.

“Projected 2D content is the most efficient way to consume content in VR.”

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Virtual reality apps are still pretty new, and for content delivery services like YouTube, it will take years before the VR content catches up to the volume of content that exists as traditional videos.

YouTube plays standard videos on a flat screen in front of a 3D environment, and it looks beautiful! Everything from the shadow of the screen as it floats in the air to the flicker of the light coming off the screen helps to ground the video in real 3D space. They even give the user complete control over the intended viewing distance. Swiping up or down on the control surface moves the screen closer or further from your view, and it’s so blazingly responsive that I found myself playing with it constantly during playback.

After a few sessions with YouTube VR, it is hands down my favorite way to consume 2D videos as well as 360 videos.

Include voice control wherever possible

The immersiveness of VR really lends itself to the use of audio input. When it comes to text entry fields like search, the quickest way to process user commands is through voice control.

Don’t rely solely on audio, though. Give people options by including a virtual keyboard as well. Voice recognition is gaining ground on text entry by leaps and bounds thanks to virtual personal assistants like Google Assistant. While I find it a bit odd using virtual assistants in public, I only use VR in quiet places where voice input feels natural.

The voice recognition for YouTube VR is perfect, and it works exactly as you’d expect. In addition to voice control, they include a virtual keyboard, which is essentially a keyboard on a 2D panel floating in front of the user. The user simply selects the letters one at a time using the Daydream’s controller. Ten seconds into spelling your first work, and you’ll be very happy about the voice control. Using voice control in YouTube VR feels natural, and I never felt any weirdness speaking to get what I wanted.

Allow the experience to continue beyond VR

The best VR apps will include a companion experience that allows you to interact outside of virtual reality. Companies that offer collaboration as an asymmetric experience between VR and mobile apps will utilize the ways people use their phones to the fullest.

If you have a mobile app that you’re porting into VR, you’ll already be set up for a companion experience. Take advantage of the different usage behaviors and include tie-ins to your VR experience that can continue throughout the day instead of just in the evening during prime Daydream time.

This is an area of the YouTube VR experience that’s lacking. While liking and subscribing to videos in VR will continue on mobile and desktop, I think they could do more to make YouTube VR feel like a continuous experience. 360 videos are sort of hidden on the desktop version of YouTube, and there’s no obvious call to action like “Watch Later in VR.”

Photo by Nan Palmero. CC BY 2.0.

It’d be really cool if they auto-suggested smart playlists of VR content that were inspired based on other saved content when I was using YouTube for web.

Other Google apps have begun to suggest content in this manner, and I hope that YouTube VR content will soon benefit from the same feature. Because companion experiences are relatively new to the VR space, few companies have nailed this aspect so far.


On the whole, I can imagine designing for VR is a bit like designing for the web in the 90s: there’s a lot of money being thrown around and a lot of untested assumptions.

Luckily, Google did their homework when it comes to usage patterns in VR. Now that their product is over a year old, they’re starting to understand their user, and they’re happy to share this knowledge with the market. To learn more, check out Google’s keynotes from 2016 and 2017.

One last thing: when I started writing this article, I decided to make a VR playlist of my favorite 360 videos on YouTube. I recommend watching them in VR of course, but you can also get a feel for how 360 video works on a smartphone or desktop!

If you’re interested in designing for new technologies, keep your eyes peeled for the new CareerFoundry specialization courses we’ve been working on. The first course, Voice User Interface Design with Amazon Alexa, will be available in September.

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