Encouraging Flow: Design Philosophy Concept #2

Encouraging flow as part of your design philosophy helps people be amazing!

River Flow

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When we are focused and in a 'flow state' we are at our most effective and creative. It’s that sensation when time and the rest of the world drops away. A feeling of being absolutely focused and working on something with a near uncanny ability; when everything is seamlessly falling into place. Flow, as a psychological state, was originally proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi back in the 1970’s but references go back much further. It’s often associated with great artists, musicians and scientists. They were capable of losing themselves for days while gripped by the creative fever. But thanks to Csikszentmihalyi’s work, we know it’s not some exclusive religious experience, it’s a state we can all experience. It’s also something we can design to encourage and promote, as when in this state we can accomplish amazing things.

Getting into the flow requires a range of things to happen.

The activity you are engaged with must be challenging and require skills to achieve the goals you set. The key here is the interplay between the challenge and your skills. If it’s too easy, flow doesn’t happen as it becomes boring or menial. You tend to get distracted. If it’s too hard, you struggle and the need to get help interrupts the activity which creates no flow. Designing for that sweet spot, the point where skills and challenge are closely aligned is very tricky, as it’s ever-changing and varies from person to person. By designing experiences as continuums rather than plateaus we can smooth the steps in the required skills. For example, replacing the jarring experience of being asked to leap from novice to expert, so prevalent with UI ‘wizards’. A continuum enables individuals to develop their skills as they choose to take on new challenges. A progressive disclosure UI approach greatly enhances this. It reveals the depth and sophistication of the platform as the individual decides to take on the next challenge, to do more, to work at a deeper level.

Distraction and interruption are major barriers to achieving a state of flow. Being able to focus on the task at hand is key. By designing calm interfaces that hint and give information scent rather than flashing and colorful ‘suggestions’ we help reduce distraction. It’s the difference between knowing a chair is to be sat on (by recognizing its form) versus a big red sign above it saying ‘sit on this’. The sign interrupts and distracts: it’s an advert and it gets in the way of the goal.

Another key element to flow is feedback. When we speak about flow we often cite artists and craftsmen as examples of people in a state of flow. Here it’s their relationship with the tools and the medium that is key. It’s the feedback they get from the activity that hones their skills and draws them deeper into the state. The key with feedback is to be subtle enough not to distract yet nuanced enough to inform and guide the activity. When we design interfaces we work hard to create that same feedback between the user and the UI by continuously observing people using the software and shaping that exchange.    

Encouraging flow helps people be amazing, and its core to our design thinking at Qlik. But there’s more to flow than just the individual’s experience.  Csikszentmihalyi suggests it can also be experienced in a group. It’s possible for a collaborative experience of flow. Interestingly, it has been suggested that charts and data visualizations are incredibly useful tools in achieving this. They help engage and focus the group more efficiently. I’ll talk more about this collaborative experience in my next post ‘Embracing Dialogue’.   

Photo credit: Mr B's Photography / Foter / CC BY

For an introduction to all four concepts take a look at “Our Design Philosophy at Qlik”.

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