Want to design for the metaverse? Here's how

May 4, 2023

We break down all things metaverse design: the biggest growth areas, design techniques, tools, and must-have skills.

Throughout the history of human society, the act of communication and exchange requires both parties to be in the same physical space. But in the 21st century, the emergence of virtual space has changed the way we socialize drastically. It has become a part of our daily life. For designers, virtual space design is still a new field that needs to be explored. We have Many things that can be done.

You may have heard of the emerging concept of the Metaverse, which is an augmented, or completely virtual, space that we access using VR headsets and digital avatars. In this age of social distancing, the Metaverse can make us feel more connected socially: no matter how far apart we are, we can see and feel each other. Many business giants, including META (formerly Facebook), are entering the metaverse, investing billions of dollars in the business opportunities they see, and these investments will create opportunities for a large number of metaverse designs in the future.
With this in mind, this article focuses on describing everything about metaverse design: including the concept of the metaverse, techniques for designing the metaverse, and tools for designing the metaverse.

What Is the Metaverse, Exactly?

Everything you never wanted to know about the future of talking about the future.

Woman in futuristic costume. Female in modern VR glasses interac

TO HEAR TECH CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg or Satya Nadella talk about it, the metaverse is the future of the internet. Or it's a video game. Or maybe it's a deeply uncomfortable, worse version of Zoom? It's hard to say.

It's been nearly six months since Facebook announced it was rebranding to Meta and would focus its future on the upcoming “metaverse.” In the time since, what that term means hasn't gotten any clearer. Meta is building a VR social platform, Roblox is facilitating user-generated video games, and some companies are offering up little more than broken game worlds that happen to have NFTs attached.

Advocates from niche startups to tech giants have argued that this lack of coherence is because the metaverse is still being built, and it's too new to define what it means. The internet existed in the 1970s, for example, but not every idea of what that would eventually look like was true.

On the other hand, there's a lot of marketing hype (and money) wrapped up in selling the idea of “the metaverse.” Facebook, in particular, is in an especially vulnerable place after Apple's move to limit ad tracking hit the company's bottom line. It's impossible to separate Facebook's vision of a future in which everyone has a digital wardrobe to swipe through from the fact that Facebook really wants to make money selling virtual clothes. But Facebook isn't the only company that stands to financially benefit from metaverse hype.

So, with all that in mind …

Seriously, What Does “Metaverse” Mean?

To help you get a sense of how vague and complex a term “the metaverse” can be, here's an exercise: Mentally replace the phrase “the metaverse” in a sentence with “cyberspace.” Ninety percent of the time, the meaning won't substantially change. That's because the term doesn't really refer to any one specific type of technology, but rather a broad (and often speculative) shift in how we interact with technology. And it's entirely possible that the term itself will eventually become just as antiquated, even as the specific technology it once described becomes commonplace.

Broadly speaking, the technologies companies refer to when they talk about “the metaverse” can include virtual reality—characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you're not playing—as well as augmented reality that combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds. However, it doesn't require that those spaces be exclusively accessed via VR or AR. Virtual worlds—such as aspects of Fortnite that can be accessed through PCs, game consoles, and even phones—have started referring to themselves as “the metaverse.”

Many companies that have hopped on board the metaverse bandwagon also envision some sort of new digital economy, where users can create, buy, and sell goods. In the more idealistic visions of the metaverse, it's interoperable, allowing you to take virtual items like clothes or cars from one platform to another, though this is harder than it sounds. While some advocates claim new technologies like NFTs can enable portable digital assets, this simply isn't true, and bringing items from one video game or virtual world to another is an enormously complex task that no one company can solve.

It's difficult to parse what all this means because when you hear descriptions like those above, an understandable response is, “Wait, doesn't that exist already?” World of Warcraft, for example, is a persistent virtual world where players can buy and sell goods. Fortnite has virtual experiences like concerts and an exhibit where Rick Sanchez can learn about MLK Jr. You can strap on an Oculus headset and be in your own personal virtual home. Is that really what “the metaverse” means? Just some new kinds of video games?

The ability to connect with other people is one of the most critical parts of being human. And for almost the entire evolution of human society, connecting with other people has meant sharing a physical space—but in the 21st century, the way we socialize is changing. This is thanks to the emergence of virtual spaces as part of our everyday lives. And metaverse design has a lot to do with that.

You’ve likely heard of the burgeoning concept known as the metaverse, an augmented or entire virtual space we navigate with a VR headset and avatars. In the age of social distancing, it can help us feel more connected: no matter how many miles apart we are, we will be able to see other people and feel their presence. And now, major companies like Meta (formerly known as Facebook) are jumping on board, investing billions of dollars into what they see as the major market opportunity. This can translate to a lot of opportunity in the metaverse design space.

With that in mind, this article digs into all things metaverse design: the metaverse as a concept, handy techniques to design for the metaverse, and some helpful design tools you’ll need to get started.

What is the metaverse?

Neal Stephenson first coined the term metaverse in his 1992 sci-fi novel, Snow Crash. This novel tells the story of a person who travels back and forth between dystopian reality and a virtual world called the metaverse. Steven Spielberg's movie Ready Player One, based off of a book by the same name, depicted a similar concept set in the near future, in which characters live in a virtual reality simulation, and compete to own it.

The Ready Player One trailer. Via YouTube.

While the metaverse may have first originated in sci-fi, it doesn't have a single definition. Right now, it's more like an idea of creating an immersive virtual space where people can comfortably interact with each other. Imagine a 3D world full of real people's avatars that offer an all-inclusive digital experience.  

The metaverse isn't a new concept. A platform called Second Life, which was released in the early 2000s, has many features that people associate with the metaverse. As a user, you can do almost the same things in Second Life as you can do in real life. But it also has one key difference—Second Life isn't an AR/VR-first experience primarily because AR/VR devices of early 2000 could not afford to create immersive experiences.

AR and VR are integral components of the metaverse as we know it in 2022, as they create a much more realistic virtual experience (and we know have the tech to make that happen). As soon as users put on their headsets, they instantly join a different world. Despite all objects around the user being virtual, they don't seem artificial to users.

Here are a few examples of how everyday interactions can work in the metaverse:

  • Work. Metaverse can be a natural evolution of the office. The hybrid model, where some people are present in the physical office and others are remote, works well for the metaverse. No matter where people live, they can work together as one team because the metaverse gives them a sense of shared physical space. One good example of such an environment is Horizon WorkRoom by Oculus.
  • Training sessions. Metaverse can become an excellent place for gathering new knowledge since it allows you to interact with your teacher or sports instructor just like you interact with them in the real world. You can almost feel that the other person is in the same room.
  • Games. The metaverse will likely emerge from the gaming industry and naturally inherit many properties of game design. For example, the content of the metaverse will probably be generated by users, and the virtual world will encourage long-term participation.

How do designers design for the Metaverse?

From a designer's point of view, the metaverse is a giant digital platform with dozens of different services that a user can interact with. And it's entirely up to users to choose what services they want to select. The user creates avatars that join the metaverse. An avatar is much more than just a user name and picture; it's a digital twin of a real person (user) that the person uses to interact with any object in the virtual world. And just like a real human being, a digital avatar has an identity that helps them access services.

Creating an avatar using Oculus Quest. Via YouTube.

Designing for the metaverse has an opportunity to become a crucial element of web 3.0, which is a new generation of a more democratized version of the internet built on blockchain. Product designers will focus on creating 3D spaces that can either be a recreation of existing physical places (i.e., home, office, club) or be an entirely new world (i.e., space station, cartoon, etc.). But no matter what kind of virtual space it will be, it should always feel comfortable for users.

Virtual office space. Image courtesy Meta.

Because designing for the metaverse means designing for an immersive world, designers will have to broaden their skills.

Here are a few areas where designers will need to focus their attention on while crafting metaverse design:

1. Accessibility

Accessibility is an essential property of good design. Creating an accessible metaverse experience is a tough challenge since many critical design factors can have a negative impact on users, such as the motion sickness that many VR users suffer.

Metaverse design is still in the early stages, and this provides an excellent opportunity to build in accessible technologies from the start, rather than try to optimize systems to be more inclusive later. Designers will likely have to find new, more comfortable approaches that will help users stay in virtual space for long periods.

Technology-based motion sickness. Image via Harmony.

2. Content in the metaverse

People visit websites and use apps for content. So what kind of content can users expect in the metaverse? The answer is—the same content they have right now. Users will interact with the same types of content they interact with within a physical world—text, music, movies—but the way they consume content can be different. For example, there is no need to buy a large TV screen to watch movies for metaverse users. They can rely on their headset for that.

From a design point of view, it's important to give users content in the format that works best for the metaverse. There is no single right way to achieve this goal, so designers have to experiment with various content formats to find the ones that work well in this field.

3. Digital goods

The metaverse is a digital world with digital goods. While digital goods have their limitations (you can’t take them with you in a physical world), they also have a significant advantage—digital goods that you purchase in the metaverse can be used in many different ways and contexts.

For example, you can buy a baseball cap and wear it in your favorite game and office, making it a remarkable part of your personal style. Of course, this feature is hypothetical right now, and it could only happen if companies that operate in the Metaverse will be willing to support that digital goods transition.  

4. Decentralized payment systems

Decentralized payments are one key aspect of the metaverse experience. It's much more convenient to pay for digital goods with cryptocurrency in the virtual space than with real money. Plus, cryptocurrency can work across all different virtual worlds that the user can join. Even today, some virtual worlds prove the sustainability of this business model. One good example is Decentraland, which offers its own currency, called Mana.

5. Design for augmented and virtual reality

From the technical point of view, we can expect a rise in the quality of AR and VR devices. Augmented reality seems like a first step to the virtual world, but the true power of the metaverse will be revealed with VR. VR technology is expected to be highly compelling to users over the next decade because it allows for creating a realistic feeling (an experience that immerses users in interaction).

There are a few areas in which we will likely see improvement:

  • Context understanding. Understanding the physical environment of the user. Depth and perspective are two major properties of the physical environment. Sensors in VR headsets will be able to map the world around the user so that designers can craft experiences that keep users safe while they are in the virtual world.
  • Design realistic facial expressions. We know that a significant portion of interaction between people is non-verbal. Facial expressions help to convey how people feel. Avatar will be able to reflect existing human emotions as you interact with other people.
  • Standardization of gestures (head, hands, and body movements) in VR. Standardization will allow using conventional patterns so that when someone makes a product for metaverse, users will learn how to use it much more easily.
  • Voice interactions. Voice-based interaction has an opportunity to become an essential part of the virtual world. In a private context, it's much more comfortable to interact with things using voice.  

6. Privacy protection

Invasion of online privacy can feel highly personal in the metaverse space. Privacy, security and data protection should be integral blocks for the metaverse design from day one.

It's important to design spaces that prevent cyberbullying. The users should be given the freedom to decide who they want to be with—alone or with the company—and remove people who negatively impacted them from their cycle. Product designers will need to work closely with data security specialists as well as behavioral psychologists to create more secure and human-friendly services.  

7. Less intrusive advertising

When it comes to the metaverse, we will likely have business models that build on showing advertising. However, advertising can be much more invasive in the virtual world.

Imagine the world in which your every move can be tracked to show you targeted offers. It doesn't mean that a metaverse creator will do it, but the risk of that is very high, especially considering how ads are integral to the business model of the biggest players in the metaverse (like Meta).

Design tools for the Metaverse

Here is a list of 5 design tools that should come in handy for anyone who wants to craft metaverse design.

1. Storyboard

A storyboard is a tool that comes from the movie industry. It's a graphic organizer with pictures illustrating the action scenes displayed in sequence. It makes it much easier for the crew to understand the nature of the scene and the emotions that actors have to convey. Like shooting a movie, creating an immersive metaverse experience is impossible without good storytelling.

Example of a storyboard. Image via NN Group.

2. 3D modeling tools

Metaverse is naturally a 3D world. The more realistic the world will be, the easier it will be to immerse users in it. Designers who want to create a metaverse experience should master the 3D modeling tools like Blender, Cinema 4D, Houdini.

Creating a model of the house using Blender. Image by Blender.

3. Sociology

It's not enough to design nice-looking 3D objects like houses, cars, and other attributes of the human environment; it's also vital to ensure that all of them work with each other. To design a virtual world with a healthy society, designers should understand how the real world works. That's why product creators will have to learn anthropology, architecture, and urban design.

Practical tools and methods like user interviews, surveys and unobtrusive measures (making observations without the knowledge of those being observed) are the most) are extremely important for creating good UX.

4. Interaction frameworks

Creating realistic interactions with other people is a primary goal of designers. When it comes to designing interactions, it's important not to reinvent the wheel and rely on tried and tested approaches.

Right now, we have a few tools that can help us with that, and one of the most important is Interaction SDK, a library of modular components that metaverse designers can use in their products. For example, you will have all the essential objects you can work with (i.e., digital hand, distance calculator, gesture detection, etc.).

Virtual hands and controls created using the Interaction SDK. Image by Macprotricks.

5. Observational user research

It's not enough to design a product; it's essential to test it to see whether it offers an excellent experience to users. There is no better technique that can help you with that than contextual inquiry. This technique can help designers see firsthand what happens in the virtual world and what areas of design require improvement. By immersing yourself in the experience you've created, you will see its strong and weak spots.

The metaverse represents the next stage in this evolutionary journey of digital technology. Ultimately, metaverse design will blend people's real and virtual lives. People will not only interact in the metaverse, they will live in it. Right now, we are at the early stage of this journey, and it gives product designers a fantastic opportunity to shape the future of the internet.

“This is why I think it’s interesting for big brands, why companies like Nike have a chief metaverse officer is because they know that if it’s this big opportunity for selling in the metaverse that has infinite profitability, then they want a part of it today and they want to understand it.”

If nothing else has been attention grabbing enough, “infinite profitability” should do it.

“You can bet your bottom dollar if you’re not experimenting, you’re not understanding this now, that you’ll be eclipsed by brands that are native to the metaverse and to augmented reality,” Galaria said. “In the same way as brands like Gymshark came out of nowhere and became great big fashion brands in the sports world, in the metaverse, it’s kind of the rules of building a brand in the real world won’t apply anymore. And they’ll have different ways of building followers and the rules for how you become a big brand in the metaverse are different. So, if you’re not playing and understanding that now, then you’ll get eclipsed.”

The most important thing for brands to remember, which should perhaps assuage some of the anxiety around the whole metaverse conversation, according to Galaria, is that this is a continuum.

“We’re at the start of a 20- or 30-year journey into the metaverse, which we don’t actually know what the contours or parameters are,” he said. “But what we do have right now are NFTs, we have limited editions, we have augmented reality product launches and try-ons and magic mirrors. And so, for the next 10 or 15 years, there’s going to be a lot happening in augmented reality, which is where we make e-commerce and marketing and advertising even more immersive and exciting and engaging. And that, over time, will help us understand what the possibilities of the metaverse are.”

What's the Metaverse Like Right Now?

The paradox of defining the metaverse is that in order for it to be the future, you have to define away the present. We already have MMOs that are essentially entire virtual worlds, digital concerts, video calls with people from all over the world, online avatars, and commerce platforms. So in order to sell these things as a new vision of the world, there has to be some element of it that's new.

Spend enough time having discussions about the metaverse and someone will inevitably (and exhaustingly) reference fictional stories like Snow Crash—the 1992 novel that coined the term “metaverse”—or Ready Player One, which depicts a VR world where everyone works, plays, and shops. Combined with the general pop culture idea of holograms and heads-up displays (basically anything Iron Man has used in his last 10 movies) these stories serve as an imaginative reference point for what the metaverse—a metaverse that tech companies might actually sell as something new—could look like.

Mentally replace the phrase “the metaverse” in a sentence with “cyberspace.” Ninety percent of the time, the meaning won't substantially change.

That kind of hype is arguably more vital to the idea of the metaverse than any specific technology. It's no wonder, then, that people promoting things like NFTs—cryptographic tokens that can serve as certificates of ownership of a digital item, sort of—are also latching onto the idea of the metaverse. Sure, NFTs are bad for the environment and the public blockchains most are built on come with massive privacy and security problems, but if a tech company can argue that they'll be the digital key to your virtual mansion in Roblox, then boom. You've just transformed your hobby of buying memes into a crucial piece of infrastructure for the future of the internet (and possibly raised the value of all that cryptocurrency you're holding.)

It's important to keep all this context in mind because while it's tempting to compare the proto-metaverse ideas we have today to the early internet and assume everything will get better and progress in a linear fashion, that's not a given. There's no guarantee people will even want to hang out sans legs in a virtual office or play poker with Dreamworks Mark Zuckerberg, much less that VR and AR tech will ever become seamless enough to be as common as smartphones and computers are today.

In the months since Facebook's rebrand, the concept of “the metaverse” has served as a powerful vehicle for repackaging old tech, overselling the benefits of new tech, and capturing the imagination of speculative investors. But money pouring into a space doesn't necessarily mean a massive paradigm shift is right around the corner, as everything from 3D TVs to Amazon's delivery drones and Google Glass can attest. The history of tech is littered with the skeletons of failed investments.

That doesn't mean there's nothing cool on the horizon. VR headsets like the Quest 2 are cheaper than ever and finally weaning off of expensive desktop or console rigs. Video games and other virtual worlds are getting easier to build and design. And personally, I think the advances in photogrammetry—the process of creating digital 3D objects out of photos or video—is an incredibly cool tool for digital artists.

But to a certain extent, the tech industry writ large depends on futurism. Selling a phone is fine, but selling the future is more profitable. In reality, it may be the case that any real “metaverse” would be little more than some cool VR games and digital avatars in Zoom calls, but mostly just something we still think of as the internet.