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The metaverse is design’s new frontier. Here’s what designers need to know

June 7, 2022, 4:24 PM UTC

It is easy to forget that when the internet first emerged on our computers, we muddled through dial-up, data files, and plenty of other wonky, less than intuitive technology. Now, as we begin to explore the metaverse, there’s a bit more of the same. “If you want to design a website or an app that’s pretty well understood,” says David Truog, VP, Principal Analyst at Forrester who researches the intersection of technology and design. “If you want to get it right, there are best practices out there. For emerging technologies, it’s trickier; It’s a wild frontier.” In a new report called Designing the Metaverse, which Truog co-published with some of his colleagues May 10, he makes the case that the holy grail for a successful metaverse will land somewhere in the blended space between human-centered design and extended reality design principles.

“The metaverse has existed since 1992 when Neal Stephenson coined it in his science fiction novel Snow Crash,” says Truog. It’s since turned up with increasing frequency in the collective conversation about business, design, and technology. “The way we define it is very simple,” says Truog. “It is the 3D experience layer of the internet.” The metaverse has raised questions for consumers, investors, and executives in terms of privacy, intellectual property, content, sale of virtual goods, safety, and so much more. And while some businesses are already on the front lines of this conversation, ultimately it will touch all kinds of organizations and design practices across so many industries from health care to marketing to retail. Truog and his team have started to hash out how designers can think about and position the metaverse in their work, no matter the industry. Herewith, his best advice.

Experiment early

Because the metaverse is still in its infancy, the Forrester team advises design leaders to set aside some resources to experiment and play in this space in a low-stakes way. In the metaverse, interaction will become “not just type and click or swipe,” says Truog. “You’re interacting with 3D spaces and objects. Seeing and touching and moving your body in space in various ways. That is empowering, but it’s got immense complexity.” And, he says, it requires a muscle that many design teams haven’t begun to flex regularly. It’s important to begin practicing design skills that will eventually define and inform the user experience. “It’s important to think about applications for your business and get familiar,” he says. “If you wait until it’s really clear what the applications are for your business, you’ll be really far behind. The back of the pack is a strategy; it’s just not a high-growth strategy.” 

Earlier this spring, 150-year-old brand Kohler collaborated on an innovative project with experience agency Huge to build out AR (augmented reality) tactile gift boxes for architects and designers. The boxes, sent to design, hospitality, and development professionals, were meant to produce a vibrant experience that would communicate what it feels like to use Kohler products in a 360-degree virtual space through the use of portals and mobile devices, blending the indoor/outdoor experience in the home. “We saw an opportunity to set a new standard for branded web-based AR experiences,” says Jason Schlossberg, managing director at Huge. “While most metaverse experiences today, whether they are AR or VR, are more cartoonish, we challenged ourselves to create a design-forward AR experience. The Kohler AR experience features subtle, shifting lighting, the melodic flow of water, and the hyper-realistic rendering of abstract worlds.”

Know your purpose

The biggest hurdle to understanding how the metaverse fits into your business is figuring out what matters most to your customers. Are there ways this new technology could help deliver on addressing pain points? Can it solve problems, or create a work around? Can it help your customer feel closer to or better understand your product, service or brand? “Whatever your business, it’s unlikely the metaverse will be totally irrelevant,” says Truog. “In the same way when the web rose, it’s like you don’t even have a business if you don’t have a website.” Being clear about the metaverse’s role in your business is crucial for it being effective. For Kohler, says Schlossberg, the boxes needed to resonate with the architects, designers, hospitality professionals, and developers receiving them. “Ultimately, a universal experience that was easy for everyone to engage with was our highest priority,” he says.

Developing your team’s skill set around that objective comes next. The way designers will need to think about the user experience in a metaverse setting requires reapproaching things like movement (six, not two degrees), mechanics (designing in terms of architecture), use of avatars (instead of cursors). Plus, there is even more to consider when it comes to the subtler aspects like permission, the ambient user experience (as opposed to the immersive), and traveling within the built environment through portals. Having the ability to work through these ideas with design skills will, says Truog, determine how resonant the metaverse will be for your business. “We are at a stage with 3D experiences,” he says, “when people try it for the first time, they are like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t realize it was this good.’ On the other hand, it is kind of a novelty. After a while it wears off, unless it’s really useful.”

Stretch the imagination

The real differentiator in the metaverse is its unique relationship with what Truog and his team call magic. “For example, when a user lets go of an object, should it fall or float?” says the report. “And when users or objects collide, should they move through each other? Or should they impede each other’s motion?” Considering the physics behind any design within the metaverse will require a design team to balance believability with the metaverse’s ability to include superpowers or suspended belief.

In the Kohler project, designers had plenty of opportunity to leverage what Schlossberg calls “a surreal, zero-gravity dashboard of products that you can rotate, pinch, and zoom into in order to examine the details.” He adds, “Users are able to leverage their own physical environments and transform them into interactive play spaces that directly coincides with the virtual 3D experience—not only a technical feat for web AR, but an effective way to activate the Kohler audience in a manner they are most comfortable: walking around, examining product from all angles, and taking in their surroundings.” While Truog points out that the gaming industry offers up some solid lessons on how to design in this way, he’s quick to affirm that gaming is just a sliver of what the metaverse could be. In addition, some of the most useful ways the metaverse can help businesses isn’t necessarily the most appealing or headline-worthy. Supply chain management is a great example of an industry that can use the metaverse to grow and address unmet needs. Still, designing for any metaverse scenario will require a new framework, one that is still unfolding across industries.

Nicole Gull McElroy


Iger investing in Canva

Former Disney CEO Bob Iger announced last week that he’s investing in Australian design company Canva. The company, which was valued earlier this year at $40 billion, builds software for design teams. It recently launched a suite of video products, making creating and editing video easier and acquired London-based data visualization startup, Flourish. In addition to his investment, Iger will also serve as an advisor at Canva, no doubt leveraging learnings from his 15-year stint running one of the most beloved media and entertainment giants in the world.


 Figma partners for education

Design software company Figma is partnering with Google for Education to help U.S. high school students develop a design skill set. The partnership builds off of a pilot program that allowed students and their teachers access to Figma and FigJam on Chromebooks at more than one dozen schools throughout the country. Normally, for every editor on Figma, there’s a $45 charge. This program, however, will be free and will allow students and their teachers to build and edit seamlessly on the web-based software.


Federal innovation at local levels

The National Science Foundation announced the formation of the Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships and its related Regional Innovation Engines program. The federally funded program will provide up to 10 years of funding per “engine” with a maximum budget of $160 million per center. The idea is to bolster access to and development of STEM-based ideas to encourage entrepreneurship and economic growth in areas without well-established innovation centers. To begin, the program will involve 50 grants of $1 million each to help communities pitch their ideas to operate an engine by the end of September.

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