The Importance of Flow

Flow, or the experience of being completely focused and immersed in an activity, is the holy grail of UX design. There are many things you can do to support it as well as things you can do to ruin it.

2 minute read

I’ve become more and more interested in Flow recently. As a psych major, flow is something I’ve been aware of for a long time, but I always thought of it as something that just happens, and never gave it much thought. It wasn’t until an unrelated talk by former psych professor Ed Deci I was listening to a few months ago that got me thinking about flow in the context of UX.

The thing that Prof. Deci said that got me thinking was actually about humanistic psychotherapy. Deci studies motivation, and is co-creator of the esteemed Self-Determination Theory. What SDT/Deci says is that intrinsic motivation is inherent in people, and it is the product of a situation that features of set of characteristics (autonomy, competence, relatedness). It is also possible (and unfortunately, very common) to thwart these needs, which leads to poor mental health, lack of motivation, etc.

Concidentally, research has shown a fairly high overlap between the conditions for flow and the basis of SDT. Flow requires a level of challenge that is adequately matched to the abilities of the participant (competence), the activity must have clear goals an progress (relatedness - sort of), and the task must present clear, immediate, and constant feedback, so that the participant can adjust performance. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (“cheek-sent-mee-hah-yee”), a world leader in flow, published this graph to express the relationship between challenge and skill:

There are also things that can absolutely ruin flow, which is actually the motivation behind this post. I have a new worst enemy when it comes to reading stories on some popular news sites/blogs, and it’s this thing:

I hate this thing so much. Any time I’m reading a news story on TechCrunch, I’m usually immersed in the experience and enjoying the read until this little thing pops up in the lower right of my browser window. Its sudden appearance grabs my attention, and I instinctively look at it. After that, I murmur something under my breath and then go ba-…wait, where was I? What was I just reading?

It’s not a major disturbance, as I quickly regain my concentration and get back to reading, but with new/popular articles, this happens several times during my read. This little blip in concentration - a break in my flow - slows me down and sullies my experience. This happens to us all the time, what with cell phones buzzing and Facebook notifications popping up and emails rolling in constantly.

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