The Spatial Interface
Following up on my 2021 post Spatial Design it’s clear to me that my hunch was right, and Apple were building these principles over the past two years to prime developers and designers for the likely future of computing interfaces.
My previous article stated 5 main things, so below I’m going to cover how I think each of these ideas has been realised in the recent visionOS and Apple Vision Pro.
1. Product Design encompasses various mediums, including digital and physical products.
As with most things Apple, visionOS doesn’t work without Vision Pro and visa versa. This isn’t going to change for many years, if ever, but understanding these new paradigms will be essential for successful Product Designers in the coming years. It was evident several years ago with the launch of the AirTags discovery experience, and now even more so.
Helpfully, with interfaces like the visionOS UI, we’re able to easily adapt iPad UI into the new visionOS UI with minimal overhead. Replace opaque backgrounds with transparent layers via helpful SwiftUI controls such as
.background(.thinMaterial) which applies the right blur radius and tints to enable the window to float over its background.
We’ll also get to play with light in different ways. These windows float over real surfaces and respond to light in ways our interfaces haven’t before. This opens up new avenues beyond the little CSS tricks people play with mouse cursor movement over background shapes.
So overall, the mental shift isn’t enormous and, as you’d expect, we’ve been mostly trained to design for this use case over the past few years if you follow the HIG closely.
2. Spatial Design is a critical skill for designers in the era of AR, VR, MR, and audio-only platforms.
I mean… I wasn’t wrong right? WWDC23 was hugely about these spatial experiences over everything else, dedicating 1/3 of their keynote to it, and with the Quest 3 and other spatial products increasing in popularity and availability, this is only going to increase.
Thanks to the advancements in technology and the groundwork that has been laid, transitioning to spatial experiences won’t be as daunting as it may seem. We don’t necessarily have to be 3D experts to design these new interfaces with finesse. The system-level tools and features available to us, like transparency and blur, provide the depth needed to make these user interfaces feel right at home in this new world.
So, while we may need to make some adjustments, it’s not as if we have to start from scratch. Imagine that it’s mostly an inversion of the main typography from black to white, and voila, we’re well on our way to creating captivating spatial experiences. Of course, there will be additional considerations, such as spatial audio and interactions, but with the right tools and mindset, designers can embrace this shift and craft remarkable experiences that users will love.
As Apple and other companies continue to emphasise the importance of spatial experiences, we can expect even more innovations and resources to support designers in this domain.
3. Successful products like Apple’s AirTag require designing for spatial planes and considering multiple sensory experiences.
When you look at Vision Pro, it’s clear that all of these spatial planes come together to make it work. There’s even specific content about the importance of designing great audio experiences for the spatial world, much like I touched on in my previous article.
The key to the success of the AirTag experience is in the team's sense of spatial planes when designing for it. Navigating the space of a room, understanding if the product is up or down from my current phone's placement, thinking about when audio and haptic feedback play a key role in the finding experience. It's so many layers of complexity that lead to a cohesive and satisfying customer experience.
The overlap of these elements leads to a truly immersive environment, and I think a lot of us will likely underestimate the importance of incredible sound design. Given that Vision Pro doesn’t include controllers of any kind, we’re not able to leverage haptics as a form of physical feedback, and so we’ll need to rely on soft audio and visual clues to provide the clarity that an action has been successful or not.
For designers, and for indie developers, this adds a whole new skill to learn. This is maybe a lot to ask, adding to an ever increasing number of things to be good at, but like haptics before them, I’m sure software vendors, including Apple, will provide smart defaults for success, error, failure audio feedback etc.
4. Designers should understand the technology and empathize with customers to create cohesive experiences.
I mean, it should be pretty clear that this area is going to become increasingly essential. Much like the first wave of iPhone designers back in 2007/8, I’m convinced that not thinking about designing and building for the Spatial Interface is going to be a real mistake for the Product Designer or developer amongst us. Although the Vision Pro price tag is enormous currently, it’s just the start of a new era of products. And with Meta getting the Quest 3 down to affordable prices—despite their awkward meme-inducing ideas—they’ll be in the hands of many more people over the next 2 years.
By combining technical knowledge with empathetic design, designers can bridge the gap between technology and human experience. They can create experiences that not only function effectively but also evoke positive emotions, facilitate intuitive interactions, and provide meaningful value to users. Designers who possess this blend of skills are well-equipped to deliver exceptional and user-centric products in the evolving landscape of spatial technologies.
Furthermore, the increasing accessibility of spatial technologies, as mentioned with the example of Meta’s Quest 3, indicates that these technologies will become more prevalent and reach a wider user base in the coming years. Designers who fail to consider the spatial interface may miss out on opportunities to create innovative and compelling experiences that capture the imagination of users.
Understanding the technology at play and empathizing with customers are essential elements for designers aiming to create cohesive and successful experiences. By embracing the Spatial Interface and considering the e evolving landscape of spatial technologies, designers can unlock new possibilities and deliver experiences that transcend traditional two-dimensional design paradigms.
5. All designers, including Product Designers, should incorporate spatial design thinking into their process.
Incorporating spatial design thinking into the process is essential for all designers, including Product Designers. The era of AR, VR, MR, and audio-only platforms is expanding, and designers can’t afford to overlook the spatial experience. It’s like stepping into a new dimension of design possibilities.
Just as the first wave of iPhone designers in 2007/2008 revolutionised the concept of mobile interfaces, the same mindset shift needs to happen now with spatial design. Designers must break free from the constraints of two-dimensional design and embrace the multidimensional nature of spatial experiences. It’s like unleashing our creativity into a three-dimensional playground, where the boundaries are limited only by our imagination.
Incorporating spatial design thinking means considering how users will physically navigate and interact with the product. It involves understanding the impact of visual space, auditory cues, and even haptic feedback. By putting ourselves in the shoes of the customers, we can create cohesive and immersive experiences that resonate with their needs and preferences. It’s about empathising with the customer’s journey and crafting designs that seamlessly merge with their physical surroundings.
Now, don’t worry, this doesn’t mean every designer needs to become an expert in building AR or VR experiences from scratch. It’s about having an understanding of the underlying technology and knowing how to leverage it to enhance the user experience. By having this spatial design thinking as part of our toolkit, we can elevate our designs to a whole new level, regardless of the medium we’re working with. From digital interfaces to physical products, incorporating spatial design thinking ensures that our creations align with the spatial technologies shaping the future.
We should embark on this spatial design adventure with excitement and curiosity. Embrace the new dimensions, play with depth, and consider how users will interact with your designs in space. It’s an opportunity to create extraordinary experiences that transport users to new realms without the constraints of a single rectangle frame. Spatial design thinking is the key to unlocking the full potential of our designs and delivering unforgettable experiences. Let’s boldly step into this spatial frontier and shape the future of design.
Apple Developer talk on the key Principles of Spatial Design (there’s also several others that offer great advice on Design for Spatial Input and Design for Spatial User Interfaces) which provide excellent advice on thinking about this new era of computing.