Humansys: In the (Cognitive) Zone
Yesterday, the New York Times published an article about Flow; Specifically, they looked at how interface designers can use clever tricks to keep users more focused on the task at hand. The researchers interviewed in the article propose solutions like e-mail notification sounds which wait until key events--like a save command, or program window change--signal a break in the user's flow. Beyond that, though, the article is short on details of where else this opportunity can be exploited, or even what exactly this magical state is.
Flow didn't exist as a concept until it was defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a research psychologist and professor of psychology at the Claremont Graduate University, in 1990. According to him, optimal cognitive experience, or Flow, is dependent on a number of criteria:
"When an individual is engaged in a well defined task of his own choosing that is both challenging and within his capacities, he will experience "optimal experience" during its performance. This is 'flow.' "
In subsequent papers and books, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi went on to describe this as being a "special state of happiness". He talks about how flowful activities can give people a huge sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, while unflowful activities like Television watching tend to make people more irritable and restless. At times, his ideas almost seem like a devotional code or religion, as in this description of his work. Despite the fact that he presents the concept in his research as a spiritual construct, the benefits of flow can be harnessed for very secular goals, as the NYT article, and this article on flow and teaching point out.
We know that increasing technology doesn't necessarily correlate with increased happiness. But this looks like it might finally provide an avenue for designers to help users feel more fulfilled with their tasks, while simultaneously improving the quality of user work. Perfect... right?
So, now for the million dollar question: How the heck do we implement it? Are we supposed to include pamphlets telling out users to concentrate while using our products? Hopefully not. Lets take a look at the progression from starting a task to entering a flow-state, and see where we can help:
1) Make it a game - Mary poppins said it best; Look at your task as a game. Establish rules, objectives, challenges to be overcome, and rewards.
It seems like the best place for products to interfere is in stages 1 and 3, since we can color the use of the product as a game, and we can try to alter the environment of the user to cut out distraction. Stage 2 might also be an opportunity, since goals need active feedback systems to decide when they are reached.
So, for an example, lets take one that generates unbelievable stress, danger, fear and death every year: The automobile, and in particular, driving it. First, to minimize distractions, suppose the driver's seat had an active noise canceling system, or white noise generator. Most of the time, the driver isn't being talked to, just distracted by all the kids in the back. The system could be tied to voice recognition inside the car, so that if the driver's name was spoken, it would disengage and let the question through. Conveniently, making a game and goals may group nicely. If the primary goal of cars is traveling a distance, we already have instrumentation to gauge mileage and speed. If safely piloting the car is also desired, wouldn't it make sense to create instruments to measure this? Maybe a "horn logging" system to tell how many times you've been honked at. Or a sensor system which keeps track of distance from the car in front of you; Instead of trying to maintain a steady speed, future drivers might try to stay exactly 2 car lengths behind.
The truth is that this concept can be applied to any act where concentration and idea synthesis is needed. Writing, cooking, shopping, planning an event, working in surgery, hiking, running, even playing the piano could benefit from innovations in this area.
Obviously, this field of Flow is in its just-born infancy, and there will be whole portions of it that prove to be false. But the concept here rings with some truth, and if we can extract that truth, and build products to amplify that truth, it will only serve to amplify our own imaginations. And that will be incredibly powerful. It's an exciting time to be designing.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team