Harmonious interfaces, martial arts and flow states

Screenshot of the game flOw

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.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

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