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Mixed Reality

Why Researchers Should Conduct User Testing Sessions in Virtual Reality (VR): On Using Hubs by Mozilla for Immersive, Embodied User Feedback

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Amidst the pandemic, our research team from Mozilla and The Extended Mind performed user testing research entirely in a remote 3D virtual space where participants had to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). This research aimed to test security concepts that could help users feel safe traversing links in the immersive web, the results of which are forthcoming in 2021. By utilizing a virtual space, we were able to get more intimate knowledge of how users would interact with these security concepts because they were immersed in a 3D environment.

The purpose of this article is to persuade you that Hubs, and other VR platforms offer unique affordances for qualitative research. In this blog post, I’ll discuss the three key benefits of using VR platforms for research, namely the ability to perform immersive and embodied research across distances, with global participants, and the ability to test out concepts prior to implementation. Additionally, I will discuss the unique accessibility of Hubs as a VR platform and the benefits it provided us in our research.

To perform security concept research in VR, The Extended Mind recruited nine Oculus Quest users and brought them into a staged Mozilla Hubs room where we walked them through each security concept design and asked them to rate their likelihood to click a link and continue to the next page. (Of the nine subjects, seven viewed the experience on the Quest and two did on PC due to technical issues). For each security concept, we walked them through the actual concept, as well as spoofs of the concept to see how well people understood the indicators of safety (or lack thereof) they should be looking for.

Because we were able to walk the research subjects through each concept, in multiple iterations, we were able to get a sense not only of their opinion of the concepts, but data on what spoofed them. And giving our participants an embodied experience made it so that we, as the researchers, did not have to do as much explaining of the concepts. To fully illustrate the benefits of performing research in VR, we’ll walk through the key benefits it offers.

Immersive Research Across Distances

The number one affordance virtual reality offers qualitative researchers is the ability to perform immersive research remotely. Research participants can partake no matter where they live, and yet whatever concept is being studied can be approached as an embodied experience rather than a simple interview.

If researchers wanted qualitative feedback on a new product, for instance, they could provide participants with the opportunity to view the object in 360 degrees, manipulate it in space, and even create a mock up of its functionality for participants to interact with - all without having to collect participants in a single space or provide them with physical prototypes of the product.

Global Participants

The second affordance is that researchers can do global studies. The study we performed with Mozilla had participants from the USA, Canada, Australia and Singapore. Whether researchers want a global samping or to perform a cross-cultural analysis on a certain subject, VR provides qualitative researchers to collect that data through an immersive medium.

Collect Experiential Qualitative Feedback on Concepts Pre-Implementation

The third affordance is that researchers can gather immersive feedback on concepts before they are implemented. These concepts may be mock-ups of buildings, public spaces, or concepts for virtual applications, but across the board virtual reality offers researchers a deeper dive into participants’ experiences of new concepts and designs than other platforms.

We used flat images to simulate link traversal inside of Hubs by Mozilla and just arranged them in a way that conveyed the storytelling appropriately (one concept per room). Using Hubs to test concepts allows for rapid and inexpensive prototyping. One parallel to this type of research is when people in the Architecture, Engineer, and Construction (AEC) fields use interactive virtual and augmented reality models to drive design decisions. Getting user feedback inside of an immersive environment, regardless of the level of fidelity within, can benefit the final product design.

Accessibility of Hubs by Mozilla

Hubs by Mozilla provided an on-demand immersive environment for research. Mozilla Hubs can be accessed through a web browser, which makes it more accessible than your average virtual reality platform. For researchers who want to perform immersive research in a more accessible way, Mozilla Hubs is a great option.

In our case, Mozilla Hubs allowed researchers to participate through their browser and screen share via Zoom with colleagues, which allowed for a number of team members to observe without crowding the actual virtual space. It also provided participants who had technological issues with their headsets an easy alternative.

Takeaway

Virtual reality is an exciting new platform for qualitative research. It offers researchers new affordances that simply aren’t available through telephone calls or video conferencing. The ability to share a space with the participant and direct their attention towards an object in front of them expands not only the scope of what can be studied remotely through qualitative means, but also the depth of data that can be collected from the participants themselves.

The more embodied an experience we can offer participants, the more detailed and nuanced that their opinions, thoughts, feelings, towards a new concept will be. This will make it easier for designers and developers to integrate the voice of the user into product creation.

Authors: Jessica Outlaw, Diane Hosfelt, Tyesha Snow, and Sara Carbonneau