Experience design principles for the metaverse

Crafting virtual worlds for accessibility, safety, and empowerment

A colorful illustration of an avatar wearing wings and a viking helmet holding a shield with one hand and a wand with the other against a backdrop of a star-fllled web browser. To the left of the avatar are optional characters and to the right are various game props.

Illustration by Eirian Chapman

People spend considerable time and energy shaping their public identities for social media, so it’s safe to expect they would extend that same level of care when crafting avatars for virtual worlds. That investment in self-styling can create a profound connection with an avatar whereby emotions and sensations will track, to varying degrees, back to the person who created it.

When designing for the metaverse, experience designers must acknowledge this complicated relationship in order to create virtual worlds that prioritize user safety and embrace and empower as many people as possible.

But how can designers craft impactful experiences that prioritize accessibility, safety, and empowerment while also ensuring space for exploration and personal transformation? That's a UX journey too complex to fully detail here, but there are a handful of design and design research principles that can help center the design process for immersive experiences.

Assume parity of impact

In Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, the first book of anthropology to study this largest of virtual worlds, anthropologist Tom Boellstorff recounts the experience of an 85-year-old woman with Parkinson’s disease controlling an avatar:

“… I’ll watch my legs, and while I’m sitting here [in the physical world], my legs will be doing what I’m doing there [in Second Life] that I cannot do here. I would fall on my face if I were to do something like that… I watch myself and I get thrilled that I am dancing! You see, I don’t think of me sitting in this chair: ‘me’ is the person on the computer.”

It’s one instance of a virtual world extending and enhancing physicality in the real world that Boellstorff noted during two years of online “fieldwork” in Second Life. Others include a stroke survivor in a wheelchair who credited his avatar with helping him find the strength to walk again, and another whose avatar helped her overcome social anxieties. Although formal research has not fully explored these connections, Boellstorff’s excerpts show that immersive virtual activity can create profound physical and emotional experiences for many users.

If research does not begin with ease of access for all, we risk locking out entire communities, and along with them, the ability to use virtual and augmented realities as tools for human empowerment.

Many virtual and augmented reality experiences like flying, horseback riding, and walking on the beach are so realistic that the fear, joy, excitement, and tranquility precipitated by them can be felt physically by a user controlling an avatar. The power of these physical and emotional responses can blur virtual and physical boundaries to a compelling extent. Because virtual worlds are created and the experiences in them are largely controllable, UX design must prioritize physical and psychological safety for users to prevent abuse, harassment, and denigration as much as possible.

Design for accessibility first

UX research for virtual and augmented reality must begin with accessibility.

One way design research is often made superficially “inclusive” is by following an “add-and-stir” approach. The presumption is that the participation of a few women and a few people from marginalized groups will meaningfully correct for glaring demographic differences between those who design products and those who use them. Such a non-committal approach risks allowing a considerable degree of discriminatory design. For example, many virtual reality experiences exclude users with mobility challenges. In an article for Wired, accessibility consultant Erin Hawley said of her experience with The Anne Frank House in virtual reality:

“I got to a part where I had to mimic opening a door, but there was no way I could do it with the controllers… Why couldn’t there be an option to open the door with the press of a button? I understand the need to feel immersed, but I also can’t open a door in the real world, so it just ends up locking me out. Literally.”

If research does not begin with ease of access for all, we risk locking out entire communities, and along with them, the ability to use virtual and augmented realities as tools for human empowerment.

Craft personal protections more powerful than the real world

In a blog post, Vivek Sharma, vice president of Horizon Worlds (Meta’s virtual reality community), announced a new personal boundary feature that restricts avatars from coming within four feet of each other. Currently on by default, it protects the “personal space” of avatar bodies:

“By preventing avatars from coming within a set distance of each other, Personal Boundary creates more personal space for people and makes it easier to avoid unwanted interactions. We’ll continue to iterate and make improvements as we learn more about how Personal Boundary impacts people’s experiences in VR.”

Such UX updates, based on participant feedback, acknowledge the emotional and physical impact of touch, familiarity, or harassment in immersive experiences. They are also necessary steps toward ensuring comfortable interaction for everyone in virtual worlds.

Because virtual worlds are created and the experiences in them are largely controllable, UX design must prioritize physical and psychological safety for users to prevent abuse, harassment, and denigration as much as possible.

Virtual worlds offer a chance at safer spaces for everyone, but especially for marginalized people. As a designer, ask yourself: What protections do women and nonbinary users need? How can marginalized groups navigate virtual discrimination? How can pervasive forces like hate be mitigated? What limits will be set on touch and language, and how will such limits be introduced and enforced? These questions will only grow more urgent with each passing day. Designers must learn where people experience risks most acutely and implement the protections and insurances that will safeguard them in virtual experiences.

Invest in long-term ethnographic studies

The physical world is demanding and exhausting. In it, marginalized communities live with a very real sense of environmental and physical risk. Their lives and choices are subject to large-scale forces, what anthropologist Paul Farmer famously termed “structural violence” in On Suffering and Structural Violence: A View from Below. Entering a metaverse shouldn’t introduce them to new modes of harm, it should empower them to explore, interact, and express themselves.

Most UX research sessions last 60 minutes. Diary studies may follow users for a few weeks. Both approaches yield robust insights but are inadequate for immersive virtual experiences. The metaverse needs ethnography (the study of people in their natural environments). Anthropologist Clifford Geertz described ethnography as “deep hanging out,” connecting profoundly with others over time to appreciate the nuances of their experiences and choices. Researchers need to spend significant time working with the same communities, inside and outside a metaverse, to truly understand the emotional, bodily, and interpersonal impacts of participation.

Human-centric, accessible, and respectful design

Thanks to Tom Boellstorff, it’s easier to understand the profound impact of virtual world participation and how it knits into the physical world. We can use his insights, and the principles I've outlined, to enable product design that’s radically empathetic, human-centric, accessible, and respectful of emerging forms of people-avatar selfhood.