In the beginning, computers were physically distinct objects apart from our everyday world. To interact with them, a user told a keypunch operator what they wanted to do, who then punched holes into a card and handed these to a separate computer operator, who would then feed it to the computer. Together, they’d wait for the results to be printed.
Far from being a part of daily life, early computers were closer to a new form of life. The challenge of early designers then was to figure out how to interact with this new life form. So designers called their nascent discipline human-computer interaction and what they designed were human-computer interfaces.
The notion of user experience didn’t come until later, at the onset of the digital age. As computers became portable, connected, and easy-to-use, they transitioned from tools for specialists to an integrated part of everyday life. And the language of design changed: The focus was now about designing for every possible experience and user.
“Interest in user experience (UX) became apparent in the mid-1990s,” Philip Turner wrote in A Psychology of User Experience, “when its advocates proposed that design and evaluation of digital technology should be extended beyond the purely instrumental to include the broader range of experiences.”
Design’s shift from the broad human to the individual user marks one of the great leaps in the history of design. With UX, design has reshaped nearly every interaction of the modern world — whether depositing a bank check, hailing a taxi, or connecting with a friend. And it’s helped make technology a seamless part of our world, accessible to anyone from toddlers to the visually impaired.
But there is rapidly approaching yet another evolutionary milestone in humankind’s relationship with technology that will again alter the way we think about design: the emergence of the metaverse.
In the Metaverse
The metaverse describes a parallel virtual world where people play, work, learn, socialize, and live out a full life through unique online identities, often known as avatars. The term dates back to Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel Snow Crash, but the basic premise is even older and has been called many things over the decades (most recently the “Oasis” in Ernest Cline’s blockbuster novel Ready Player One).
While the metaverse may have first originated in sci-fi, it is no longer a work of fiction. Today, a metaverse-style virtual world is widely considered inevitable, and many of the most powerful companies are racing to get there first. “Aware of the threat posed by gaming companies,” Ruchir Sharma wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times, “internet giants like Apple, Amazon, and Google are racing for controlling stakes in what is sometimes called the ‘metaverse.’”
And according to venture capitalist Matthew Ball:
The Metaverse has become the newest macro-goal for many of the world’s tech giants. ... It is the express goal of Epic Games, maker of the Unreal Engine and Fortnite. It is also the driver behind Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR and its newly announced Horizon virtual world/meeting space, among many, many other projects such as AR [augmented reality] glasses and brain-to-machine communications.
A common prediction shared by Ball is that the first metaverse will likely emerge from the gaming industry. It is the industry that has honed how to monetize virtual worlds and developed the most expertise in designing them. The first metaverse may resemble a game, or even be marketed as one, but it will be readily obvious that it is more than a game.
In the same way that smartphones combined elements of existing technology — portability, connectivity, and software — to open the door to an entirely new UX, so too will the metaverse combine common ingredients of games such as user-generated content, a persistent shared world, and unique digital identities to elevate the experience into something new.
Designing for the Metaverse
If the transition from human-computer design to UX marked the change from computers as separate from the “real world” to computers becoming an intrinsic part of our world, the metaverse describes the next stage in this evolutionary journey: computers as portals to new worlds entirely. And as technology shifts, so will the terminology we use to describe the person who interacts with said technology. So rather than design being focused on the user, design will instead reorient itself around the player — the person who occupies this virtual world.
This will force a reimagining of good design.
Today, good design is intuitive, easy-to-use, and aesthetically pleasing. But in the metaverse, good design is something else entirely — it’s wholly immersive. “When a player and character merge to become a persona, that’s immersion,” wrote Richard Bartle in Designing Virtual Worlds. "That’s what people get from virtual worlds that they can’t get from anywhere else. That’s when they stop playing the world and start living it.”
In the metaverse, design is not as concerned with how quickly someone accomplishes their goal — it’s more concerned with whether a player is immersed enough to pursue a goal in the first place. That could mean traveling to meet friends, rather than instantly meeting them in a Zoom room; or going to a marketplace, rather than having access to online storefronts where anything can be purchased at any time.
Evidence of this can already be found in modern video games where game designers must design around the world they’re creating for. To fast travel in the Western-themed game Red Dead Online, players make their way to a stagecoach and pay a fare. In Minecraft, players must find a merchant if they want to purchase goods.
Because designing for the metaverse means designing for an entirely new, immersive world, designers will have to broaden their skills to include a host of new disciplines. As Bartle points out, designers will need to study subjects from economics to urban planning to anthropology.
The reason is because virtual world designers are ultimately designing human societies. As Raph Koster, a leading virtual worlds designer, said in a 2017 talk, “When you pick up those tools — connectivity, persistence, identity — you are either going to design that society on purpose, or by accident.”
To create a healthy society in a virtual world, designers will not only need to understand how societies work in the real world, they will also need to understand what threatens them.
The Ethics of Designing Virtual Worlds
The view of the metaverse first as a human society, rather than a product or service, will be critical to designers for another reason: Designers will be forced to confront the ethics of their design decisions in much more profound ways.
Today, design conveniently filters user interaction through a series of abstraction layers like apps, websites, menus, feeds, and profiles. While the symbolism and metaphors of digital design have made technology accessible, they also obscure the real-world effects of our interaction with technology.
For instance, when a user leaves an aggressive comment on the page of a profile, we don’t feel the same emotions as a parallel confrontation that takes place between two human beings in the real world.
But the metaverse presents design through a more naturally human lens. It uses space, time, and identity in a way that’s much more proximate to our own reality, so the spectacle of two users fighting in a virtual world will be more visceral because the aggressors will appear as lifelike avatars standing “face-to-face.”
Even macro-level consequences of their design decisions will take on new physicality in the metaverse. Whereas today poor design in something like a social media platform may manifest as a drop-off in engagement, in the metaverse imbalances and inequality might manifest as mass migrations of avatars across barren planes because they can’t afford to live in a populated center. In other words, the consequences of unethical design will manifest much more profoundly.
This example is not a thought experiment either; it’s a phenomenon that’s already been observed. In a 1999 thesis paper titled “Online Migration and Population Mobility in a Virtual Game Setting,” Christian Carazo-Chandler observed how decisions made by the designers of the early online game Ultima Online led to a lack of in-game housing. As a result of inadequate housing, some players started sharing houses or gave their allegiance to guilds that provided a place to stay, while others moved to new lands entirely in search of a fresh start.
“Players have the choice to stay in one area if they so desire,” the author wrote, “but one will find that many of them will continue to look for new areas that will provide them with more resources.”
While inadequate housing in a massively multiplayer game like Ultima Online might not threaten immediate real-world consequences, the same dilemma in a metaverse would, since an underlying premise of the metaverse is that it will become a new labor platform. In the same way that millions of developers rely on the App Store or Google Play for their livelihood, so too will the metaverse become an economic engine capable of sustaining — or exploiting — entire populations.
The Risk and Opportunity for Designers
Because of the tangible way in which unethical design will present itself in the metaverse, designers should expect scrutiny the likes of which they have never seen. While “digital rights” may seem an abstract concept today — what do we own online? — the immersive human perspective of the metaverse will make these concerns more concrete.
And designers might similarly see more visceral expressions of player discontent, such as groups of avatars organizing in virtual spaces to stage marches, protests, and even acts of digital vandalism in order to demand change.
While this will present a constant challenge for the designers of the metaverse, it also speaks to the massive opportunity ahead for the early pioneers.
Today’s internet reflects many of the injustices of the real world because it is an extension of the real world. The wealthy and well-connected have inordinate influence, minority voices are marginalized, and people are reduced to consumers. But the metaverse represents a chance to design a new world that is informed by our best ideas for how to create a fairer, more just, and enriching society.
Achieving this, however, will require designers to lean into the lessons they’ve learned from the digital age and to leverage the tools they’ve spent the past decade developing: research, collaboration, empathy, and user advocacy. Above all, they will need to grow comfortable pushing back against decisions that harm players, and raising concerns publicly before those decisions come into effect — not just after the damage has been done.
The question for designers is whether they will have the courage and vision it’ll take to design a better world for the player than the one they helped create for the user.