The concept of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is becoming a big interest for many organizations as they attempt to enhance buyer experiences, improve ergonomics in design, and advance software usability and accessibility. This is all amazing and cool and will take usability to the next level for many applications, but does it have a place in workflows.
However, most of the time we deal with the real world – reality reality. Finding a needed CAD drawing or invoice, though it would be neat, probably does not happen any faster or easier if we add a 3D or augmented experience around it. (Though I know we are all looking forward to the days of hologram file cabinets — remember Minority Report.)
Old Processes Still in Place
Certainly, the efficiency and productivity of many of our everyday workflows have improved through the application of technology over the years, and this will continue. But it’s important to pay attention to how to make many of our commonplace processes easier, and faster, especially for those who have to execute them every day as part of their work.
Many organizations have moved from paper documents to digital documents (though we’re still nowhere near being totally digital), facilitating more effective accomplishment of workflows. The reality reality, however, means we are still dealing with paper documents, interoffice mail systems, and copiers. As much as it pains me, we still have to accommodate many older processes that are still in place. A 3D image of the file would be cool, sure, but how realistic is this when companies still have rooms of paper file cabinets containing information that is needed and often critical? And the modern-day file room, the public drive shares, are definitely reality.
Visualization Before VR
Virtual reality is mostly associated with creation of a visual environment that appears to be real but is not. Constructing alternative realities can aid users in completing many tasks that are difficult or even impossible in the “real” world. For workflows like design, simulation, quality assurance, and maintenance this may be helpful. But for many mundane, document-centric workflows VR is not only overkill but probably not even helpful.
For many processes, however, the insertion of visual objects, including lists, graphs, and clearly understandable icons, is extremely helpful in increasing productivity. Even dashboards containing favorite searches, files, and workflows, though simple, assist users in getting the day started or returning to projects they have recently left.
Providing visualization of existing documents, drawings, specifications, pictures, etc. in thumbnail fashion is also a good way to support users as they complete tasks, steps, or just respond to questions (almost like augmented reality but not quite).
Pattern Recognition as a Form of VR
Perhaps a simplistic form of VR is using basic pattern recognition. Or in this case the process of viewing similar steps or actions taken over time and providing them as options to workflow participants. Systems can proactively search using heuristic algorithms to find these patterns or previously used files. Prompting users visually with these suggestions can prevent users from having to remember how they, or others, completed workflows previously. The key is to provide useful options to users, not overwhelm them with the myriad of actions others may have executed.
Using VR in the Future
The days of goggles, holograms, and swiping at the air are coming and will make routine processes more interactive and easier to complete. But for the time being, for workflows that are document-centric, whether paper-based or digital, the use of virtual reality will be associated with simple visuals and history-based suggestions. It’s OK to reach for the stars, but let’s keep on feet on the ground and our eyes on our monitors.