“Augmented reality is going to change everything.”— Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO

There has never been a more exciting time to be a designer. While most people see the benefits of Augmented Reality (AR) for consumers, AR has opened a whole new world for those developing products and services such as craftsmen, instructional designers, architects, city planners, and more. AR not only makes the profession more exciting by elevating creativity, but it also saves time, money, and adds a new level of efficiency never seen before.

When it comes to the extended reality family of innovation, there’s both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). While virtual reality is completely synthetic, augmented reality is only partially digital. Meaning, AR brings digital elements into the real world for a hybrid scene — part real world, part imagination.

The most well-known examples of AR are the mobile device game Pokemon Go, where digital characters are collected by walking around real communities and the SnapChat mobile app where computer-generated effects use facial recognition technology to make silly modifications to one’s appearance. But, the application of AR technology has come a long way in just a short time. And, that means it’s no longer just for fun and games; although, it’s a little bit of that too.

A New World

AR technology takes the design process from an environment of observation to one of experience. Whether via mobile augmented reality on smartphones and tablets or through wearable augmented reality in the form of glasses, AR allows designers to work in diverse environments. These environments include both physical and virtual options; physical being real-life and virtual a combination of augmented reality and our surroundings.

For example, AR has never been as critical as during the current global situation. In pharma manufacturing, Apprentice’s Tandem AR tool kit utilizes hands-free, cleanroom-compliant AR glasses, and accessories to support collaboration among its designers. For the current situation, researchers are using ChimeraX’s mixed-reality molecular visualization software with a depth-sensing camera and VR headset to manipulate a 3-D model of the agent in the hopes of creating a vaccine. While companies like TechSee are providing hospitals, healthcare providers, and medical equipment producers with virtual medical technicians during the crisis to repair and maintain vital machines such as ventilators.

In addition to the design environment, by utilizing AR technology, designers have more content types available to them in which to create products and services. This content includes static, animated, 3-D, dynamic, and procedural. Each provides the ability to move away from working on a stagnant screen to interacting and engaging with product design in more than one dimension to add a layer of complexity but also usability through a more dynamic and iterative design process.

So, what does designing with AR look like?

Designing with AR

The design process often varies from person to person, but some foundational concepts unite creatives. This is no different when the AR experience is applied to a designer’s work. However, because of the very nature of AR, there is the ability to add to the design process and some areas that won’t apply to work in AR. In fact, most experienced designers are proficient in creating web and mobile apps, but these skills aren’t necessarily transferable to the AR workspace, which requires a different way of thinking.

The first step is to define the physical environment in which the user will be applying AR. Then, to determine the kind of objects that will be created to increase interaction, this includes both lighting and texture as well. While the goal is immersion, it is also imperative to put into place safeguards so that users are not so immersed that they become at risk of personal injury. This includes making it obvious when a user toggles between reality and the AR experience. Additional privacy measures should also be considered as well as accessibility for all users.

When designing within AR, it is important to think about the context and function of the AR scenario. How will a user interact with a digital object? Through touch, gesture, or embedded controls. How will a user know an object is interactive and simply decorative? And, keep in mind that users are in control of their camera and thus their field of view. Google explains in their design guidelines that there are four different ways a user can move in an AR experience:

  • Seated, with hands fixed
  • Seated, with hands moving
  • Standing still, with hands fixed
  • Moving around in a real-world space

Thinking ahead and designing interactions as well as mapping out behaviors and relationships is critical to not only developing a solid product or service but to also gain stakeholder buy-in.

User-centered Design

This is where user-centered design (UCD) thinking comes into play. User-centered design is the process of taking into consideration the user through every phase of the design process. Using this methodology means taking into consideration the demographics and habits of technology users, which is made easier with the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and data mining. An example of this being done well is IKEA’s smart table, currently in development, that when ingredients are placed on the table, recipes utilizing those items are suggested.

There are five main UCD principles:

  1. A clear understanding of user and task requirements.
  2. Incorporating user feedback to define requirements and design.
  3. Early and active involvement of the user to evaluate the design of the product.
  4. Integrating user-centered design with other development activities.
  5. Iterative design process

Throughout the design process, when utilizing UCD, the target user is analyzed by evaluating persona, scenario, and use case (inherent triggers and flow). AR makes this step much more efficient and relatable.

The Future

The most obvious industry that will drive AR design innovation, is healthcare not only because of the current situation but also because its use already has a foothold in both the training and practice of medicine. Doctors are using AR technologies to observe a patient’s vitals and refer to images from MRI or CT scans during treatment. The military is also experimenting with AR solutions like Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet helmet, which identifies and provides information about any object that comes into the pilot’s view. Automobile manufacturers have already incorporated AR into their designs by way of heads-up displays that project speed and mileage information in the corner of the windshield, but have their eye on adding real-time information about road conditions, weather, and GPS related data. Factories specializing in industrial and mixed manufacturing are adapting AR innovation like Boeing’s implementation of AR glasses to assist technicians while wiring its planes.

A recent ABI Research report shows that the AR market will continue to steadily grow with projections expecting the market to reach $198 billion in 2025. The advent of smartphones and mobile technology have made AR integration something that can easily be mass-produced. Now, designers need to stretch their creative legs and get to work providing solutions to everyday problems.


By Dana Hackley
PHD in Media and Communication studies