Virtual Tours

How do you translate the experience of being in a specific physical space and what that feels like for people who can’t be there? Quarantines have made this question suddenly much more important for industries like real estate events, spaces, universities and cultural institutions. So we did some years of research to find out what works well about them currently and what could still use some work. We learned a few big things with virtual tours. Users thought of virtual tours as a secondary tool after photos and videos. Especially when the task involved gathering information for big consequential decisions like buying a home, booking a wedding venue or choosing a university, people consistently looked at photo galleries and even prerecorded video tours before using the 3-D virtual tours. This is because they expected the virtual tours to take a lot of effort to use. And they turned out to be right. Users would quickly flip through a series of photos to decide if something was interesting enough to invest the time and effort to take that full virtual tour. Virtual tours take a lot of effort to control and moving through the virtual space is slow. These tours, they’re not really full 3D worlds, they’re truly just a series of 360 degree photos linked together. This means that users can’t freely move through the space at the speed they want and stop and look around. They also load really slowly. For example, one mobile user walked into a room during a house tour and got frustrated trying to turn around, go back into the hallway. He said for me to turn around and get out of the room, that was like eight thumbs worth spatial orientation was also a big struggle.

Users weren’t always sure exactly which room they currently were in and what other rooms were nearby. Text labels on the arrow links between rooms help somewhat but quickly cluttered the view and navigating to other parts of a space that were not adjacent was also really difficult. There were some other experiments with filmstrip thumbnails or a dollhouse view where you could teleport, but these were difficult to control and users often overlooked them anyway. This is pretty similar to the crude 3D video games of the 90s. In fact, several people compared these virtual tours to the video game missed from 1993. Video games have progressed dramatically since then, but virtual tours are still stuck in the past. Users wanted a guided expert walk through to get them excited about the space rather than having to fend for themselves.

They wanted someone to tell them what they were looking at and why it mattered. An expert guide like a realtor, a museum docent or a park ranger could offer up useful information at the right moment. Often things that users wouldn’t even know to ask. Imagine when touring a virtual home, you could see information at a glance about the size of the room, which direction and window is facing. So you know what the light is like throughout the day. How many power outlets are in there and things like that, or in a museum you could have contextual information about the brush strokes and the technique and also the life of the artist. This is not easy to do. Well, you need to understand specifically what information users want and when it’s appropriate to reveal it.

But if it’s executed well, there’s a huge opportunity for these virtual tours to go beyond an in-person visit and be better than reality.

Too Much UX Success

We used to talk about the problems of companies that pay too little attention to user experience, but what if you had the opposite situation? You’re too successful. You have like a long line of people out the door to your office, all projects that want you help on their designs.

Well, first of all, no, rejoice that you are successful. That’s better than being a failure. But if you have too many requests on your time, I advise against meeting all of them because then you’re just going to spread yourself too thin and you are actually going to do a bad job, which, of course, is to nobody’s interest. So what you have to do in the long run is to get more resources, more budget, hire more people. So that’s going to be the long term strategy. And to achieve that, you have to document all of these requests and document how many projects are not going to get the help that they really deserve because of the current resource limitations.

That’s in the long run. Right now, though, what you have to do is triage. So you can’t divide up all these project requests into three categories. First of all, the ones that you’re actually not going to bother with. And those are going to be those cases where you basically set up to failure because you just know, based on experience that those people are just not going to follow your recommendations.

You may recommend, know, some great UX. However, they’re not going to implement it, so why bother? So don’t spend your time on those. On the other hand, you’re going to have a small number of projects where you’re really going to like lavish attention and really follow the full recommended due process and do the best possible work. And those should be either projects that are the most important to the business, high value projects. Alternatively, projects that for some reason have the attention of upper management of top management, because then they will really, you know, see the great work you do. And that’s going to help you with that budget request later. And then in the middle, there’s going to be a category of products that you can do. You can give some help, but not the full range of help. And one way, by the way, that you can also help those products that’s only going to get a little bit of your time is by giving the other people in those projects some unique training such that they will be able to do some of that work for themselves, not as well as you may be, but at least they can do some on their own because they’re not going to have the full due attention given the current budget limitations.

But if you are really successful, project managers love you based on the experience that in the past quality has gone up dramatically. Business value has gone up dramatically with good. You will enjoy that. But you had to do triage on the many requests you’re going to get.

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