Interaction flow or Activity flow?

Peter Jones Information Ecology

Boxes and Arrows is a great source for the publication of in-depth discussions of ideas and concepts emerging in the user experience community. Originally more of an information architects how-to, nuts & bolts go-to service, it has grown into a true eJournal with good editorial review and a “real” community of readers that know each other (supra-virtual?). EiC Christina Wodtke and editor Austin Govella have done a great job of encouraging publications beyond the expected scope in the IA readership.

A new, well-cited article by (another sharp alumnus of Calgary’s nForm shop) Trevor van Gorp –  Design for Emotion and Flow – brought a raft of comments related to designing for flow and to enhance positive emotional response in an interactive experience. Trevor gives a guidelines for design based on his research and the classical model from Csikszentmihalyi:

Flow channel

Flow channel

1. A clear goal… The user navigates to accomplish a task, like seeking information on a particular topic or surfing for fun. This is an evolving goal, dependent on the options presented to the user and aided by logical information architecture, intuitive navigation, effective wayfinding and clear options for proceeding like information scent, breadcrumbs, meaningful labels, clear page titles, etc.

2. With immediate feedback on the success of attempts to reach that goal… The user receives quick, sensory feedback in the form of a visual shift and/or sound from links, buttons, menus, or other navigation items.

3. Presented as a challenge that you have the skills to handle. Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow in the context of user experience was debated between designing flow into the experience, and deisgning to optimize the flow as an end in itself.
“The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.”

Andy Polaine, who’s doctoral research was also on this topic, described another path toward interactive flow:

“The main point here is that interaction designers can encourage this self-contained activity, the intrinsically rewarding aspect unrelated to future benefit through the design of interactions and interfaces that are rewarding in themselves to use. Interfaces that are satisfying in their own right encourage users to play with them and explore them further, which means they learn them without thinking about learning them.”

My notion of facilitating flow in interactive experience design leans more toward optimizing the experience of a real world activity or a whole system. In most of my design challenges, for Redesign Research anyway, we are aiming to design a total service to support a professional or intellectual activity of some sort. Consumer or discretionary experiences that may lend themselves to interaction for the sake of its own enjoyment, or a gaming-type pursuit experience.

In professional activity we might consider several questions relevant to optimizing their cognitive flow, such as:

How is individual flow affected when multiple players are involved? (For example, you need a critical mass to make a multiplayer game, or Second Life, compelling enough to flow – there are tradeoffs between individual and group experience of flow).

How about the world beyond interactivity, which is where work and play live for most people?

Where is the focal experience of the flow? Where is it experienced?

Is it in the interactive experience or in the activity that the interaction supports?

Consider the design requirements for medical decision making – the flow is happening in the consult room, not in the information display. The physician, nurse, order clerk, pharmacist are part of a complex, continual loop-closing communications feedback system. The attempt to design-in flow states to an interactive experience could be counter-productive to total flow, which requires maintaining context awareness, status updates, attention cues to change in patient state, and providing brief-but-accurate communications at the time and point of need. Yes, flow could be improved. But a UX, designed in relative isolation from the total system, might over-flow the information display and sub-optimize the activity.  Is this situation amenable to design for flow?

Trade-offs. There might also be multiple interactions involved that trade-off “more flow” or enjoyable challenge in one state versus more radical efficiency in another.

Take an eBook reader for example (a project I just finished). If an eBook vendor designs their platform for the purpose of maximizing reading flow while online, they may inlcude features or navigation that impedes the flow state of the researcher, who is attempting to understand a thread of ideas across a number of publications (common task), or who is maximizing the number of references to an idea by finding all the citations in and across books.

Flow is a good example of a classical concept that has been retrieved for adaptation in a pragmatic design context, and may have a lot to offer practitioners. But we can also see where Flow Theory becomes weak – other theories (whole system) may require us to expand the flow theory to accommodate it. Is Flow scalable? Should we keep interpreting Csikszentmihalyi or should we start to make our own observations about interaction flow and extend the aging theory of flow for other domains?