There’s been a few posts from the UX community in the recent past on flow states (most notably at 37signals’s Signal vs. Noise). This got me thinking about my own experiences of flow and what this tells me about how flow states could be induced with interfaces.
A common example of flow states is when playing a game (the player forgets she is pushing buttons on a game pad and is only mindful of the action at hand). I’ve experienced flow while painting but also when doing work on a PC (even when creating wireframes in Visio!) However, the most interesting flow experiences were while practising martial arts.
The interesting bit is that the flow happens when performing techniques in partner exercises or even fighting matches. These are all situations where the ‘system’ consists of two people, not one person and a medium mediated by an interface (if you’re willing to call a paint brush an interface that is).
To reach a state of flow in martial arts you need to stop thinking about performing the technique while performing it, but in stead be mindful of the effect on your partner and try to visualize your own movements accordingly. When flow happens, I’m actually able to ‘see’ a technique as one single image before starting it and while performing it I’m only aware of the whole system, not just myself.
Now here’s the beef. When you try to translate this to interface design, it’s clear that there’s no easy way to induce flow. The obvious approach, to create a ‘disappearing’ interface that is unobtrusive, minimal, etc. is not enough (it could even be harmful). In stead I’d like to suggest you need to make your game, software or site behave more like a martial arts fighter. It needs to push or give way according to the actions of it’s partner. You really need to approach the whole thing as an interconnected system where forces flow back and forth. Flow will happen in the user when he or she can work in a harmonious way. Usually this requires a huge amount of mental model adaptation on the user’s part… When will we create appliances that can infer the intentions of the user and change their stance accordingly? I’m not talking about AI here, but what I would like to see is stuff more along the lines of flOw.