Augmented Reality and Usability

Sometimes it can be hard for users to navigate Augmented Reality apps. Either because they don’t really know what to do with AR or because they can’t work the app. But it won’t do to utter a sighed, “the world simply isn’t ready for this yet!” and give up. There are a few things you can do to prevent that scenario, which is why we’re sharing some of our tips with you today.


Ok, so you’ve spent a long time planning and implementing an Augmented Reality app for your company. You’ve looked into and successfully used app store optimization in order to boost your downloads. But unfortunately, the overwhelming feedback you’re now getting from your users is that they are kind of lost on what to do with your app? Of course, that’s not what you wanted to achieve at all. Honestly, though, that can happen rather easily when you don’t spend enough time thinking about how your customers will use the app and how self-explanatory it really is when it matters – which is before and during development.

And while we’re being honest – Augmented Reality is not a very intuitive thing for most people. That is to say, not yet. The technology just hasn’t been in use for long enough in order for everyone to instinctively know what to do with it. To give an example: when you look at an AR 3D model, there is no classic ‘zoom’ function. Someone who doesn’t know AR, will try to use the familiar touch gesture to make the model bigger and will be disappointed, because it doesn’t work. But actually, they would only have to move their mobile device closer to the 3D model in order to make it bigger, which should in theory be more intuitive. However, because we’ve spent years ‘unlearning’ this natural behaviour on our smartphones and tablets our brain tells us that it’s not possible right out of the gate. Which means that we’ll have to spend some time re-learning this (actually really simple) way of using Augmented Reality.

That does not mean, however, that you should just wait for this learning process to be complete before you publish an AR app. There are some relatively easy things you do to make life easier for your users. What you won’t get here is an introduction to general usability practices – if you’re looking for something like that you should check out the Userbrain blog by our friends from Simplease. What you will get here is some tips on what you can do to guide your users to as well as through your app.

Introducing your user to the app

A good and successful introduction does not begin inside the app or even in the app store, it starts wherever your users first come into contact with it – which can be your website or a print product. Of course, that isn’t only true for augmented reality apps, but it is especially important in this case, because, as we have established, it’s not intuitive for everyone yet. A very good example for a successful introduction to an augmented reality app can be found in the catalog of our client Hartl Haus. Next to the text announcement about the new AR app, you can see the following picture.

While very pretty, it might not seem very spectacular to you at first glance. But if you’ve ever had the need to illustrate an augmented reality application without demonstrating it live, you’ll know that this picture is, in fact, excellent. With publicly available apps, there will always be some users who have no clue what augmented reality is or does. And unless they happen to be of the curious sort, they probably won’t try the app, if they don’t know how to use it or how it will benefit them. And this picture (which, of course, must still be accompanied by some explanatory text), brings that goal a lot closer.

Additionally, the catalog (or wherever the target is printed) should indicate, which of the pictures are targets and which aren’t. After all, a target looks like any other picture and by simply looking at it, you can’t tell whether it is connected to any AR content (not even if you’re an expert ;)). And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that your app users will probably not go searching for the unmarked AR content in a 100+ page catalog.

A good app store page

Not all users will be introduced to the app in your catalog (or a live preview, your website or other printed materials), some will also just happen upon it on in the Apple or Google app stores. Therefore, you should take care to facilitate a good introduction there as well. Whoever finds your app should immediately know what it’s about and how to use it. There are a few ways in which you can achieve this. First and foremost, there should be a good app description explaining the app in (not too technical) detail accompanied by some good screenshots that show the app’s various functions and, importantly, how it is used. You guessed it, for Augmented Reality apps that means showing the different contents and people should be able to tell right away that they are looking at an AR app. Now, that might sound obvious, but despite that, you can find many examples in the various app stores where you wouldn’t know it was an Augmented Reality app just by looking at the screenshots.

What I’ve described so far, though, should be the absolute minimum of information you offer on your app store page – for a while now, there has been the option to additionally upload a video of the app in use. If you can, therefore, create a short video (of some quality) which can showcase your app and how to use it, you should definitely use this feature. As a little tip: don’t only show the actual screen recording in your video. Film someone using the app and show the entire application – from opening the AR view and scanning the reference image to viewing the content from various perspectives, turning it, zooming in on it, etc. Thus, you can provide some context for the viewers in order to make it easier for them to follow, especially if they are new to the technology.

Meeting the user less than halfway

Once the app has been successfully installed, there are still some potential obstacles to consider. For example, someone opening your app for the first time (or for the first time in a while), they might need some instructions here as well. Our recommendation is to include a tutorial view which is displayed when the app is opened for the first time. This should serve to guide the user through the process of displaying the AR contents in a few simple steps. However, as you don’t want to annoy more frequent users, it will only be shown once and can be skipped altogether. If they do want to look at it again, it can, of course, be reactivated or viewed via the info or settings section.

Instead of this, you can also show a short intro video – and since you’ve already created one of those for your app store page, that shouldn’t be a problem, right? 😉

Notifications and hints inside the app

Lastly, good user feedback is just as important as a good introduction. By this, I mean that the app should never seem unresponsive, even when the user does something wrong or some content or other takes a little longer to load than usual (which can happen with large 3D models or slow internet connections). A loading screen should therefore tell the user that something is currently being loaded and, ideally, there should be some indication on how long that might take, e.g. with a progress bar. Otherwise, how can they be sure that something is indeed happening and that the app hasn’t simply crashed?

If your app cannot be used offline, there is no internet connection available and the user is trying to use the Augmented Reality mode (thus probably trying to display something), you should let them know why that’s not working. You might also want to consider displaying a short hint center-screen whenever the reference image is too far away. If your app can be used to place life-sized objects in the space around the user, a guide or some helpful hints on placing the content might be a good idea.

Basically, what you should be trying to do – offline as well as inside the app – is to anticipate possible points of confusion for your users and take measures to avoid these obstacles as best you can.