Designing humane augmented reality user experiences

4 min read
Matt Sundstrom
  •  Jun 1, 2015
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We’re surrounded by advertising from the moment we wake up: it’s on our coffee cups, on TV, and driving in front of us on the way home. But we can always turn it off or tune it out.

Augmented reality (AR) is the new way of layering digital experiences onto our analog world.

The difference between your life right now and a life with AR is that right now, you can escape advertising.

With AR, there’s no such thing as breaks or boundaries—unless we set themTwitter Logo.

The difference between your life right now and a life with AR is that right now, you can escape advertising.

Learning from the past

Let’s take a trip back to the early 2000s: websites were 800×600, tables ruled, and a new form of advertising was on its way to becoming the most hated thing online since the dancing baby from Ally McBeal.

Pop-up ads.

Pop-ups took a direct-mail approach to capturing impressions by attempting to monopolize a person’s field of view. Referring to a pop-up that automatically started playing audio, a Nielsen Study test user wrote:


As we figure out how to communicate in the added dimension of AR, things are going to be messy. But this time around, let’s ditch pop-ups and clumsy advertising in favor of great user experienceTwitter Logo.

How to reach people in AR without being obnoxious:

  • Learn and respond to a user’s social rhythm
  • Use opt-in instead of all-in
  • Listen to behavioral clues to interpret interest
  • Use current low-impact methods like push notifications
  • Build on real-world, physical advertising models like out-of-home marketing
  • Fearlessly explore new modes of communication

Users set the volume for social interaction

My social rhythms look something like this:

  • Mornings: I work alone
  • Afternoons: I explore and talk with people
  • Evenings: I draw and spend time with my family

AR should complement and enhance social rhythms, preferably without needing to constantly tweak preferences.

How AR might be useful with my social rhythms in mind:

  • Mornings: AR prioritizes email and apps like Slack and Basecamp while muting entertainment and advertising channels
  • Afternoons: AR opens the social spigot, connecting me with friends and serving up a broad range of entertainment and advertising
  • Evenings: AR throttles back to family essentials: communication, scheduling, a note to pick up a gallon of milk

AR should complement and enhance social rhythms, preferably without needing to constantly tweak preferences.

Advertisers use opt-in

You’re buying shoes online, and during the checkout process the store asks if it can send you email and text notifications, and also if you’d like to download their app. You could either opt in or tell them to get lost.

The same model works for AR, but the trigger may be different. Let’s take a look at how an AR device might watch for behavioral clues to interpret interest.

The AR device will interpret your level of interest by observing your behavior.

You linger on a piece of AR content for a set length of time. Your device interprets this as interest and serves up additional content.

You take action to engage the content. It could be a gesture, voice command, or a blink.

The content unfolds around you, altering your experience of the world.

You return to your initial state.

The augmented world will be just like our current world, but with a little extra. 2 additional examples of how that might play out:

1. Push notifications

When receiving a push notification, a person typically has 3 options:

  1. Ignore it, and it’ll disappear
  2. Opt out of any future push notifications
  3. Learn more

Push has a relatively low time/concentration cost, and unlike pop-ups, it’s an opt-in for the user. That opt-in is crucial.

2. Out-of-home advertising

You walk by a wall plastered in posters. One catches your eye, and you move closer to learn more. It’s an old interaction that still works because of its simplicity. In the advertising world, this is called out-of-home advertising (OOH).

OOH lives in high-traffic areas and can take many forms like billboards, kiosks, posters, and wrapped vehicles.

2 arguments for using AR in OOH:

  1. The graphics of an ad can be recognized by machine vision
  2. An OOH ad could be enhanced by AR or exist solely in the user’s headset

Someone will set boundaries in AR. Maybe there will be special districts without advertising. Maybe buildings will charge for the placement of an AR banner, or maybe it’ll fall under free speech. It’s difficult to predict this early on, but I think the future will be a lot more colorful and active.

When you’re designing and developing new apps, explore new interaction models—don’t reach into an old bag of tricks that were designed for a different time.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard