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Keys to Onboarding Immersive Experiences

Augmented reality gives designers endless opportunities to organize information in physical spaces in new interactive ways. Even the best intentions can fall flat when they are tested in AR. In our quest to give screen designers everything they needed to become AR designers, we found our onboarding experience was too much for some users.

So we took this feedback and developed a brand new welcome experience for Torch. In this interview, Product Designer, Keith Hamilton shares how he turned user feedback into a new, user-directed onboarding experience that was designed and built completely in Torch AR. Download Torch to view the project in AR, or read along to learn about our iterative 3D product design process. - Nathan


Nathan Bowser: So, Keith you just recently developed a new onboarding experience for Torch. There have been some notable changes in the overview. Can you tell me a little bit about where you got your ideas and how this design has evolved?

Keith Hamilton: At the most basic level, if you look at this onboarding experience versus the first one, it's radically different. In the first version, the focus was to get you into a hands-on augmented reality tutorial so you could start learning the mechanics of how to use Torch from the jump. To make it spatially accessible to as many people as possible, we used a minimal footprint that asked you to rotate in a circle to progress through the experience narrative.

We thought the setup was novel and, for some people, it worked really well. For others, it did not work as well—a moment of confusion about anything, at any point along the experience, and many people gave up. Rightfully so.

Their confusion was a roadblock to learning what they can do with AR, and in many cases, they would just shut down the app.

NB: So, you put Torch through some user testing for feedback about how people were reacting to the first onboarding. When you went about designing a new welcome experience, you made some specific decisions about how you were going to design that tutorial using Torch. Tell me about your approach.

KH: Again, one thing we learned with that first onboarding experience was that a lot of people really enjoyed it for what it was: an AR tutorial that takes place in, and teaches with, AR. What a concept, right? A lot of people found that to be very cool. We wanted to keep that feeling in any future design.

We also learned that the initial experience was trying to do too much, too fast, so we dialed it back. Instead of trying to force you down a linear, mechanical onboarding experience, we took a lower-risk, self-directed approach—all we ask of you now is that you explore. In the new onboarding experience, you start in a very simple environment and we give you a peek—just enough that you get a sense for the lay of the land, what tools you can use, how simple is it to get started, and what some of the things you could start building are.

By limiting the first steps to more of an observer role, we eliminate the pressure of having to understand everything out of the gates. We want to show you the power of Torch AR and give you an idea of what you can do before we ask you to expend energy to learn things. This was a major shift in the design of our onboarding experience.

The new Torch Overview has a front-facing user interface in placed in space, not on the screen.

Another major shift was putting all of the experience in front of you, instead of arranging it around you. We found a lot of people got spatially disoriented when they were first going through the onboarding experience, which makes perfect sense. For most of us, spatial computing is unfamiliar territory—we’re used to looking at apps and websites, which arrange information in front of us, on a flat surface. That is how we, as denizens of the digital world, have learned to chunk and parse information most efficiently.

So, if we want to introduce you to this new environment, this new world, how can we do that most efficiently? For starters, we can lean on the now skeuomorphic language of 2D UI to drop you into a familiar environment—one that feels flat. Then, we just slip in a few new spatial concepts underneath and, before you know it's happening, you’re operating in spatial UI.

NB: That's a complex consideration. You want to introduce the power of a 360-degree experience, but if you want somebody to focus on a very specific thing, especially something that they've never used before–you need to put it front-and-center.

KH: Right. There are all of these kinds of cues that you need in a 360-degree spatial environment, but we have to keep our focus straight—we are trying to get people in the door first. Instead of trying to do the most spatially immersive environment possible, how can we be spatial, present, and the most convenient and efficient for people?

And in spatial design, convenience and efficiency go beyond the screen-bound layout problems faced by app and web designers. We have to be considerate of people’s bodies—having to look up in the sky for a long time is physically exhausting, and a simple height difference will change the way an experience looks in AR. As a practical example of how that affects the design process, I’ll often design sitting down because that better approximates how the average woman will see my experience standing up.

NB: We hear a lot about augmented reality's power to tell stories and give viewers a role in those stories. Did these considerations impact how the onboarding was structured and ordered?

KH: We often talk about how the power AR is in this idea of non-linear storytelling—that you could be in a situation and the story can be played out in different ways, depending on the route you take. As Paul, Tera, and I were talking about it, we just kinda started riffing on this idea of “well, what if instead of trying to guide you down this linear path, we just gave you all the options that you could choose from and said ‘have at it’?”

Giving the viewer agency over the experience tends to work very well, but designing for this kind of agency can be a little tricky at times. If you are not working with a simple A to B experience, you will probably have multiple ways to get to and from the same moments in that experience. You gotta make sure that all of the choice loops end up connecting to each other.

In our new onboarding experience, however, there are only two main scenes, with five branches off of each of those scenes. So, in our case it was fairly straightforward to connect the dots.

NB: You’ve said that you built the project in a very iterative process. One of the things that could be really interesting to new Torch users is how to move their prototypes into a more polished and robust presentation. What does your workflow look like as you're taking a Torch project from that early prototype and building it into this final view?

KH: That's a good question. There are really three phases to the workflow I’ve settled on.

First, I get into Torch—right away. I use whitebox elements to block out the scenes I want to build, putting the focus on the interactions and how an experience works as opposed to what my UI looks like. Once I’ve got some or all of the experience built, I jump over to the content.

Sometimes I’m more than happy to use something straight from Google Poly or Sketchfab—it’s super convenient to have those directly in the app. But, when I want to create my own UI elements, I primarily use Adobe Illustrator and Cinema 4D. I'll design the piece of UI in Illustrator because I can use that program very efficiently to make the vector shapes I need. By downsaving the Illustrator file to version 8, I can then open it directly in Cinema 4D, extrude the shape, apply some material, and bam—3D UI.

The last part of my design process is the really fun part. I hop back into Torch and begin to replace the whitebox elements in my experience with the finished UI I’ve created. The way we’ve set this up makes it really easy to drag and drop higher-fidelity assets into an existing scene. There’s also something immensely satisfying about using the Replace Selection feature and seeing your finished assets take shape and become interactive. Whatever the scale, position, rotation—whatever the old object did and wherever it was, my new asset takes its place.

The really awesome power of this process is that it elevates the interactivity to the surface—it can happen on a thread that is wholesale divorced from the content creation. With Torch, you get to focus on those two parts independently–which is also how most screen designers work, separating content and function.

And yeah, when we were first kicking this new onboarding around, we made the conscious decision to block it out with stand-in (and fairly unattractive) UI and video content, do some really ground-level gorilla testing, then go back and master the artifacts in After Effects (video) and Cinema 4D (UI) once we knew how we wanted everything to go together..

NB: That’s awesome–I love how you’ve found ways to incorporate your 2D workflows in 3D. As we’re talking about the spatial choices you made, it hits me that there is an additional dimension of complexity that happens when you start placing ideas in space. There are some new spatial applications of information architecture or how we organize ideas in AR to consider. The success of your experience starts to depend on how you arrange information and how you activate it in AR.

KH: Right! And now that we're adding features like link opening and the ability to make an API call as an interaction response, we're gonna start getting into this bi-directional data scenario with Torch projects. So, all of a sudden things like interacting with the physical world through IoT, dynamic content that changes around you, streaming video, and those kind of things are gonna start being more realistically possible.

I think, with the information architecture in the new onboarding we're just scratching the surface. This is definitely a stepping stone for our new customers—new spatial designers—to say, "Now I'm getting into augmented reality. Things are moving around me. Things are moving back and forth. Things are rotating and spinning. That's great, I get it. What's next?"

Learn the basics in the new Torch Overview project, then go forth!

If we could get one thing out of this whole experience over anything else, it would be for someone to get into it and say, "Damn. What else could I do? I'm comfortable enough now mentally with what's happening...what else is possible here?"

That's one of the big promises of our tool—lowering the barrier to entry so that the imagination can take off, right?

Inspired to design for augmented reality? Download Torch, check out the updated overview, and start building today.