Collaboration in Augmented Reality

ThoughtArena: An experiment by Thoughtworks
Project Overview
Covid19 is taking us towards the new normal. Most of us are working from home, and that leads to spending long hours on Zoom, or other video conferencing platforms. All the meetings, inceptions, discovery workshops, conferences, and webinars are happening in the same monotonous ways. There is very little scope for movement and the tools restrict people to their laptop/mobile screen and lack a natural way of collaborating.

Thoughtworks Global Marketing Team and XR Practice India Team brainstormed around new ways of working that may be more engaging, interesting and productive. That is how ThoughtArena began as an experiment to see/observe/analyse how people can collaborate in 3D space. It is an augmented reality-based mobile app, that allows the users to create your own space/rooms with virtual boards in it.
When was this?
May- Aug 2020
MY Role
Experience designer, visual designer
TEAM
XR collaboration team in ThoughtWorks

• Generating research plans, leading research and testing sessions
• Analysing all generative and evaluative research
• Creating visual language, branding and design principles for the XR environment
• Creating flows, wireframes and interface design
• Communicating and collaborating with PM, developers, product owner and different stakeholders

Design Responsibilities
The challenge today
Limited interaction space

The current whiteboarding tools clutter and prohibits user movement, restrict users to their laptop/mobile screen and lacks a natural way of collaborating.

Content not designed for digital collaboration

A lot of workshops and events that were previously supposed to happen in person, were not designed for digital remote collaboration. Artefacts (free drawings) or conversations that were easier to do face to face are difficult to convert digitally.

Lacks collaboration

Remote workshops lack collaboration, creativity/ideation due to lack of physical connection and people speaking up less.

Solution
Extending traditional
2D workspaces to
real world environments

and providing collaborative experience using spatial solutions in AR

In ThoughtArena, users can place virtual whiteboards in the 3D environment and use them like physical boards, in their comfort and in real-time with other users. In addition, users can draw, add images, audio,video notes and may vote while participating in their workshop or sessions.

XR Space allows users to collaborate in natural ways
Simulate actions similar to physical boards and provide tools used in a meeting room
Allow users to add/annotate content & media using any device.
The Approach
01

Research

Secondary Research
Survey with 60 people
User interviews: 15 people

02

Ideation

03

Design

04

Testing

Step 1:
Secondary research,
Survey with 60 people,
15 user interviews.

to understand people's mindset & what challenges
are they facing in remote working lifestyle

In the research phase an inception activity was conducted by our team focusing on exploration of the problem space. The main goal was to understand people’s mindset and what challenges are they facing in the remote working lifestyle and strictly in their working setup.

We conducted
generative research, including stakeholder and user interviews, survey, literature review and persona development.

Scope of user research
What we already know vs what we need to know
User/ behavioural Insights :

Impact of remote working
Working Space / Setup
Breaks
Time Management

Collaboration insights

People Interaction:  How do different roles collaborate in office in both pre covid and current remote scenario.

Impact of remote working on collaboration:
Understanding their current experience and impacts of remote working on collaboration, what problems are they facing and how can we help them?

Tools/Devices Insights

Awareness: How much are people aware and familiar with the AR/XR technology

Experience of Remote collaboration tools

Device usage and experience.

Insight 1
Personal productivity
has increased but collaboration efficiency
has gone down:

People are feeling that they are being more productive individually but the time to get things done remotely while collaborating has been challenged due to following factors:

• Not finding the right tool and thus taking a lot of time for setting up especially with clients and in terms of remote workshops

Content not designed for virtual collaboration so collaboration efficiency is going down and people are speaking up less

Meeting time has increased Switching between different tools and works impedes a smooth flow for collaboration activities

• Users expressed the need to have a versatile platform to conduct common collaboration activities with their colleagues and teams.

• Scheduling collaborative activities with teams is a painful process and it is difficult to ensure participation from everyone due to schedule conflicts and unease to reach out.

Insight 2
People are missing
the tools and the collaborative experience offered at the office

Most users miss the experience of collaborating on whiteboards in office space. Gathering around any whiteboard for a small brainstorming session at their own convenience.

A lot of users said that they would like a space to draw, huddle or brainstorm together with people they are collaborating with.

Insight 3
Remote working setup


Users moved towards a proper dedicated working space and a desk setup, which makes them feel more productive and focused, a bit closer to the office environment.

People usually have cluttered and restrictive user movement as they spend more than 60% of their working time on their desk setup. So, to break the monotony, change of posture or for a breath of fresh air, people are moving towards a more relaxing environment like sofas, dining table, balcony for calls and meetings and want to encourage movement.

Tools and devices

Video conferencing tools like Zoom, are the primary way to work collaboration followed by some whiteboarding tools such as jamboard, trello, mural.

Online document editing suites also play key roles in the work environment.

Most of the the tools use mimics or is the 2-D representation of what they have in office for a more efficient remote collaboration.

Insight 4
Lack of awareness
of AR technology

We found that 40% of the users who had AR compatible smartphones said that they have never experienced AR application, and were not aware that their phones supports AR.

Understanding the user
Who are we designing for?


Who are we designing for and what is their primary goal are questions I ask myself before I start designing.
In this case, a business analyst:
Ross, 30 is a senior business analyst at TW and loves experimenting with new technology and trying out new applications. He recently purchased an HMD and has started developing interest in AR/VR domain.
• In his job, he needs to conduct and run a lot of client workshops with offsite and onsite but faces a lot of restrictions and challenges in offsite remote meetings.
• Right now, Ross wants to remotely collaborate on a brainstorming and ideation session with his clients and teammates for a recent proposal he is involved in.

The Approach
01

Research

02

Ideation

How might we
Product Vision
Use cases
User journey

03

Design

04

Testing

Step 2: Ideation

Brainstorming and coming up with a solution

How might we help users in a remote setting
to virtually collaborate like they were physically present
in a meeting room?

Once we gathered all the results and insights from our research, we fine-tuned and detailed our concept by mapping common themes and ideas that we could use to guide what the product would look like and help us gain more understanding about our users.

Since this project started as an experiment our first job after the research was to create a proof of concept (MVP) with AR technology. The concept initially started with a head-mounted device but because of limited technology especially during a remote working scenario, we transitioned and shifted our focus to smartphones for the MVP and pushed head-mounted device in the second phase of our project.

VISION OF THE PRODUCT
The ultimate vision/idea of the product was to give people the same experience of sitting and collaborating in a meeting room with your colleagues at your office while working in a remote setting.

Which will include providing the user with all the tools that are there in the meeting room at the comfort of your own space like interacting with virtual avatars of colleges, live collaboration, free drawing, etc. But, to build it following the agile methodology we had to first divide the project into different phases.

We started with building the project and iteration goals, feature listing, timeline, MVP assumptions and things that are out of scope and what will come in the next phases and start designing for MVP while keeping the future goals in mind.

We knew that we have signed up for a product which will evolve with time, and we would need a plan which enables evolution. We included many new features since inception (according to our initial plan), and deprioritized others based on user expectation and need.

The Approach
01

Research

02

Ideation

03

Design

Design principles
Competitive analysis
Branding
Design System
Final designs

04

Testing

Step 3:
Design

Before we jump to start designing and iterating, it was important for us to take a step back and define our design principles to keep the team true to original intention and have something that could fortify the foundation, guide us what’s good for our users. In this phase, we defined our design principles, terminologies like physical and virtual environment and did competitive analysis. This helped and guided us to design better systems and would serve as the first step towards building our design system and visual design.

Design Principles. To keep our team true to original intention, fortify the foundation and guide us what’s good for our users

01

Usability

Making design usable for as many people as possible, making interface and every interaction intuitive and easy to understand. Presenting all information with ultimate clarity, brevity and simplicity.

02

Flexibility  

Providing flexibility and encouraging movement. Guiding the user through different types and range of movements while keeping safety and comfort in mind, like avoiding backward walking, avoid long sessions and taking breaks.

03

One experience

Keeping the experience similar to real-world interactions. Designing one experience for different spaces and environment that the product might be used, from a small apartment to a vast field, preparing for real-world obstacles like furniture or traffic, and physical challenges.

Design System
Interacting with the space
Designing familiar patterns
for new interactions

Here, we worked on several iterations for the interactions that could happen inside the space. We studied and tested our designs on different lighting and environments. Our primary focus here was to keep the space similar to the real-world interactions, understanding space, size and scale while preparing for environmental and physical limitations.  

It could get really confusing, for the first time users, especially who are not so much into AR Technology. So, our aim here was also to reduce cognitive load and remove unnecessary user interactions.

In this space users/teams can collaborate in real-time, with tools that are provided in a meeting room. You can add a sticky, add pictures, videos, draw, text notes, add voice notes and vote on them while being connected through voice. Initially, we were trying to include voice connectivity in the MVP but due to certain constraints, we decided that we will push it in the next versions.

The Approach
01

Research

02

Ideation

03

Design

04

Testing

Usability testing
Learnings and recommendations  

Step 4
Usability Testing
13 people (Usability testing ) + 50 people (survey)

Our primary goal of this usability testing was to assessing the effectiveness of the developed concept in terms of usefulness and usability.
Answering questions like:
• Does the app experience improve productivity? How functional is it, does it add to effectiveness?
• Does it help in reducing Zoom fatigue?How users perceive and use this application and how long can one use it? (Device & Gestural Interaction)
• How does this app make you feel? Emotional aspect?Is the app experience enjoyable as compared to similar 2D applications? eg. Jamboard, Mural?
• What can be improved in the app?
The insights comprise of • User Engagement Metrics • Usability Insights • Usefulness Insights • Feedback on 3D collaboration • Overall user experience

Learnings and
recommendations
Usability Insights

• The most used feature was adding text notes, Image notes and voting.

• Users liked that the boards provided the feel of the physical boards with the ability to move the board items.

• Users felt that it could be a remedy for zoom fatigue and may break the monotonous style of working by providing flexibility to move around. 

Intuitive and smooth: People are finding the experience to be smooth and intuitive but without onboarding, it's taking some time for the users who are not familiar with AR to get comfortable with the app. 

Insight 2
AR Applications need great onboarding

As AR is a new technology, most of the first time users don't know what to expect. They are only familiar with the 2-D interactions and they will interact with the 3-D environment in the same way while using a mobile device. This often results in interactions with the digital content in AR not being intuitive.

Eg. In the ThoughtArena app, some users did not realise that they needed to physically move around or move their phone or tablet to be able to work on the virtual board without the help of a text prompt.

We needed to design a good onboarding experience, that properly communicated and educated the users about these interactions, to help them to get familiar with the new experience.

Insight 3
Accessibility

If a user isn't able to move around, give them an alternative way to use the app. For example: When the user is supposed to move closer to a target, give another way to access the target.

But, we also need to be careful while designing interactions, for the following reasons: Too much movement may cause physical fatigue. It may be fatal if the user is in an immersive environment and not conscious of the real environment while interacting with virtual objects. Phone-based XR applications where the user needs to hold a phone awkward position for a longer duration would cause strain in hand.

Insight 4
Keep the experience as seamless as possible:

Once the user gets immersed in the new digital environment, even minor glitch in AR applications can break the immersive experience and users may not believe in the virtual objects. 

Be careful before introducing a new interaction language. XR interactions are new to a lot of users. We realized that at this stage it would be too much for the users to introduce a completely new language of interaction. We followed and continued the 2D board and sticky paradigm in the 3D environment tried to keep interactions such as pasting notes, moving from one place to another, removing etc similar to what we do in 2D. 

Insight 5
Understand human anatomy 

While designing user experience in XR. like Field of view (FOV), Field-of-Regard (FOR) - It is the space a user can see from a given position, including when moving eyes, head and neck, Content positioning, Neck/Hand movement.

What’s next?
The next step was to plan out the second phase of the project and get user insights and feedback on using this product while using headset in augmented reality.
Conclusion

In this project I learned a lot about designing for virtual reality as well as affordances provided by the platform. I got to try my hand at designing interactions and exploring the new possibilities within Ar.Designing for AR is stimulating because the technology is evolving at such a rate and there is a lot of untapped potential, which gives you a lot more freedom to explore and try out things that might not make sense in 2-d.

OverviewResearchIdeationDesignTest