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Want to design for the metaverse? Here's how

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

Illustration by Anita Goldstein.

Profile picture of Nick Babich


8 min read

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. By now, major companies like Meta (formerly known as Facebook) have jumped on board, investing (and now, losing) 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 if the field has staying power.

With that in mind, this article digs into all things metaverse design: what designers need to know about 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 will we 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.

Meta's virtual office space.

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.

Infographic explaining technology-based motion sickness.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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