Part 3: Virtual Tours has to be easy and intuitive to use (great UX and UI, for both desktop and mobile)
In Part 1 and 2, we discussed making the virtual tour (VT) architecturally accurate and visually beautiful. If you have that, then you have great renderings and possibly videos. (Videos still require some skills in camera work, which is another blog in itself.) All of this does not guarantee a great VT experience. As mentioned earlier, Matterport is a very popular platform for existing homes. For new homes, there are many virtual tour platforms, each allowing customization, and design. Thus, for the builders, as you select a VT team, you also need to look for a VT that provides a great user experience (UX) through a great user interface (UI.) By the way, bad UI is not only frustrating to use but can result in a loss of almost a billion dollars ($893 million to be precise.)
Desktop vs Mobile vs VR
This challenge is amplified by presenting the tour in an optimized manner for both desktop and mobile devices. Data show there is an even split between desktop and mobile usage (and tablets being insignificant in comparison.)
Thus, it is imprudent to ignore the mobile design. In addition, the mobile UX is gaining popularity with a portrait-only orientation especially for downloaded apps. For example, Facebook and Amazon apps are in portrait-only view and cannot be rotated. If a VT requires rotation to landscape orientation, then do not count on sharing that tour through the Facebook app.
One thing we do not have to worry about as much is mobile VR (i.e. Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear, etc.). Specifically, I am referring to untethered viewer devices that you wear or hold to your face without any hand controls. These are fun, especially when combined with audio for a full experience of a U2 or Coldplay concert. But for new home shopping, I do not see mobile VR enhancing the experience too much. (And even with COVID, does anyone want to clean and share desktop VR headsets at the sales center?!)
Although VT has been around for a while and volumes have been written about UX and UI, there is currently no standard or best design for VT. Your VT team should constantly research and test for the desired UX and then improve the UI design. The VT team evaluates the user’s journey and motivation while balancing what gets included. Even more importantly, they evaluate what gets excluded due to constraints, priorities, and feasibility.
Navigation and Hotspots
Let’s start with the most basic functionality: navigation. With any VT, including Matterport, one general UX is expected: the ability to look and navigate around. For most people, this part is intuitive regardless of whether the tour is on desktop or mobile.
Most tours have navigation hotspots, like circles or arrows. You click or tap on it, which takes you to the next scene. Most people are already familiar with this with Google Map.
Yet, with some nuances, the UX can go from frustration to pleasant surprises. These subtleties include the ability to “travel” down a hallway or across a room without being forced to click on each and every hotspot. Given that there are many different virtual tour providers, builders should not expect all of them to be the same or equally good. In terms of UX, we know people prefer to walk from room to room (hotspot to hotspot) instead of a jump from room to room (i.e. map, list of rooms, etc.) This allows the user to maintain a familiar orientation. Yet, it would be great to be able to do both, with the latter as a quicker form of navigation.
Map and Floor Plan
Navigating with the assistance of a map is much like driving a car with GPS but without any specific navigated directions or destination.
As you drive, you can see information around you: roads with names, a pond, etc. In a VT, you are not forced to pick or even follow a route. You see your location on a floor plan and then click on a hotspot to jump to that location. Those who play video games will immediately recognize the advantage of the map. It shows your position and which direction you are facing. (More on gamification later.)
Again, this shortcut removes the need to click on many hotspots just to go from the garage to the owner’s bedroom or to the second floor. Now, the challenge is displaying a map that is comprehensible (i.e. black and white or color-coded, etc.) and legible (i.e. room labels) on the small screen of a mobile device.
Another UX/UI navigation issue is the concept of wayfinding, which is a science in helping people find directions and locations. It is the real world, for example, in a hospital or airport, there are signs to help people navigate and find the desired locations. Wayfinding signs are very common to the point that we do not think twice about them.
For residential homes, however, such signs simply do not (and should not) exist. It is the job of the VT team to design a UI and help the homebuyer navigate throughout the house plan. We are designing tours now to provide such information in a very clean manner and without any signage. (More in Part 4.) In the virtual world, for a residential home, how do you know what is behind each door in a hallway without having to peek into each one of them? For both the real or virtual world, this discovery process may become a tedious experience. In a large house, a person may even get lost.
There are other nuances that a good interface will bring to create a good experience. For example, does the tour include additional information and capability beyond just looking and walking around? This is especially important you share the VT in the absence of your website, including a sales center kiosk or social media, email, or text messaging.
Some may say that all the information about the house plan or the builder is already on the website; thus the tour does not need to provide that information. Others will want support information included in the VT so that it can be a standalone experience, and reinforce the builder’s brand and community’s information.
Hence, this is the UI vs UX balance, in deciding what information does not need to be duplicated from the website. There is a balance in offering ways to learn more about the house plan without requiring the buyer to leave the tour. This results in longer engagement with your product and community. Such collateral information can range from square footage, the number of bedrooms/bathrooms, map of a community, site plan, video of the neighborhood amenities, etc. This list can be endless. Just to be clear, more is not necessarily better.
Ultimately, you, as a builder, are looking for a product that offers a great UX which reflects the quality of your brand.
I started this blog post talking about navigation. But really, the first impression is the beginning of the UX journey. Again, there is no UI standard so you will have to choose a VT team that reflects your sensibilities. For me, I prefer a UI that is clean, simple, and intuitive, yet packed with features. The view of the space is expansive and not cluttered with an inordinate number of hotspot icons. When the homebuyer is ready to start, it has to be simple so that she can just go right into it without memorizing all the instructions from the “Help” screen. (Video game designers often build a learning phase right into the level design. Again, this will be elaborated in Part 5.)
For builders who are hiring VT teams or buying VTs, you do not need to be UI or UX experts. However, you should play around the tour and understand its features and limitations. You should test it on mobile and desktop to make sure both platforms are working properly. You should ask the VT team to incorporate some of your ideas and needs into their design. In Part 4, we will discuss more advanced features and ideas for new home construction virtual tours.