User Experience: Flow

28 July 2011, by

What was the last thing you did that totally engaged your mind and made you forget about everything else?

Watching a film maybe? Or reading a book? Playing Tennis? Eating Filet Mignon? Filling in a survey? Tweaking your social networking privacy settings?

Whatever it was, I’d guess you were probably quite happy to be in such a state of engagement, and possibly a little bit bummed when it ended. When you were no longer in the zoneIn the zone

User Experience Design is generally about designing to help engage users in their activities. Why is that important?

Well, a chap by the name of Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi (“CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”) pioneered research on how great athletes, chess grandmasters, programmers, surgeons or painters felt when they were performing at the peak of their abilities. He called this state being in Flow.

He wrote a book on his findings called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which has a lot to offer the user experience designer.

As Professor Csikszentimihalyi summarises, there are eight commonly reported traits associated with being in Flow:

  1. Clarity: The goal of the activity is clear. Not conflicting. Not confusing. And not just the overall goal. At every stage it is clear what to do next.
  2. Feedback: Feedback is immediate. At every step, you are given feedback allowing you to make your next move. Without feedback, we lose alertness and get distracted.
  3. Challenge: The challenge of the activity matches your skill level. Not so easy that you get bored, and not so difficult that you get overwhelmed.
  4. Focus: Your attention is concentrated and you are focussed on what you are doing. Generally, our brains are constantly switching between doing something and monitoring the result. But when in Flow, these two merge into a single beam.
  5. Distractions: You’re not distracted by everyday problems or frustrations. You’re so engaged in what you’re doing that you can’t afford to think about something else. So a side effect of Flow is how it can be a form of escaping reality.
  6. Control: You’re in control. But not totally. If the task is too easy you’d get bored or complacent. You’re on an edge but still in control.
  7. Confidence: You lose self consciousness. You stop worrying about what others think because you don’t have this luxury. You’re doing something more important. As a result, losing self consciousness while in Flow can mean you appear more confident than you normally might.
  8. Timing: Your sense of time gets transformed in some way. You might spend what felt like a few minutes doing something only to discover you were doing it for hours. The time just flew by. Or the opposite might happen and everything slows down and you can see the ball actually bounce off the racket strings like Neo would if he played tennis.

Professor Csikszentimihalyi further talks about people having a certain type of “autotelic” personality. People who are naturally able to keep themselves in a state of Flow by trying to apply the feeling of being in Flow to their everyday tasks and chores, by turning them into games for example. Alas, a third of our waking lives are spent on such maintenance activities as housework, brushing teeth and running virus scans on Windows.

So Flow is something we should aim for when carrying out any activity, especially now that we recognise the characteristics of Flow. In a way, Flow is the most we can expect from ourselves.

If you run a business, hopefully I’ve convinced you about the benefits of designing a system that engages and motivates your employees to work more productively and with more enjoyment. Almost as if they were trying to beat their hi-scores on a computer game all day.

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Categories: UX / Design


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